July 2023

David Alpaugh

Epigram. Engraved on the Collar of a Dog
which I gave to his Royal Highness

  Alexander Pope—


In 1736, Alexander Pope's Great Dane, Bounce, whelped—and the poet gave one of its puppies to Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose estate was in the Kew district of London. Pope wrote a poem and had it engraved on a beautiful collar he put around the dog's neck. The idea was that a courtier, possibly a duke or earl, would notice the collar, kneel down, pet the dog, and read the challenging inscription.

Pope's poem was written to be read, not on a page, but on a piece of jewelry. To read it, one had to position oneself as a supplicant and be reminded that one was at the home of ultimate highness (Prince Frederick was heir to the throne). W.K. Thomas imagines possible candidates who might fall victim to Pope's satire: one "bloated with his own importance"; another who "has prostituted loyalty and devotion"; another who "has changed political sides at every convenience."

What we have here sounds like an 18th century attempt at a 1960's "happening"— structured more like living theater than poetry. Whoever's asked "Whose dog are you?" becomes a living metaphor for subservience to more powerful persons or parties. The collar, probably made of gold, adds desire for monetary gain to the indictment.

Nor does our actor come off well when compared to his highness' dog, who is at homeat Kew—well fed, well cared for, probably loved by the prince and his servants, perhaps even a little bit proud to be, by association with royalty, a dog of high position. The above quote states our poet's belief that dogs are genuine in their affection, truly our best friends. In contrast, the poem's human dog is merely a visitor at Kew—there to seek favors from the prince or other powerful persons. He is "putting on the dog!" (The words obsequious and fawning come to mind.)

Notice, however, that, for us, Pope's poem exists not on a collar but as an "epigram" (published six years before his death in the 1738 edition of his collected poetry). The actual collar hasn't survived, nor is there any evidence that anyone ever kneeled to read it. Some have even suggested that Pope was not the author—that it was written by Henry Carey or was the result of a collaboration between Pope and Jonathan Swift. (Most scholars are confident the epigram belongs to Pope.)

What we have is a persona poem, wherein the poet speaks in the voice of a fictional character. Persona poems rely on a secret pact between poet and reader, who overhear and silently assess the speaker together. We pretend that Pope's words are in the voice of "his highness' dog at Kew," but we know that dogs can't speak and that the zinger sounds more like his master's voice.

An epigram, Webster tells us, "is a concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought." Its nearest verbal relative is the short, well -crafted joke, with a brief set-up and LOL finish. Both are crucial to the epigram's success, and Pope does not disappoint us with either.

In the canine voice, "dog"  and "sir" are merely descriptive—but in the voice of the poet-ventriloquist behind the animal, they drip with irony. We feel Pope's contempt for the courtier in "whose dog are you?" And sir, although it was originally a title for a knight or baronet, by Pope's time, the OED notes, it was often "used with scornful, contemptuous, indignant, or defiant force," as if to say, "You, sir, do not deserve that title. (One thinks of Dr. Johnson's famous insult: "Sir, your wife, under the pretense of keeping a bawdy house, is a receiver of stolen goods.")

When I teach writing to budding poets, I advise them to master the short poem—the couplet and quatrain—before going on to write 30 or 40 or 100 liners. Not only must every word be perfect in a couplet, every syllable must be so. The shorter the poem, the more likely it is that the poet will acquire what Hopkins calls "the habit of perfection."

Pope's long poems—"The Rape of the Lock," "The Essay on Man," "The Essay on Criticism," "Epistle to Arbuthnot," "The Dunciad"—are written in couplets, and excerpted, some of their lines have gone into our language at large and are still frequently quoted today. In some cases, the zinger line is so strong that it no longer needs its set-up, being powerful enough to stand on its own five feet.

Alexander Pope's Epigram is one of many powerful couplets that showcase his brilliant wit, adroit rhyme, and metrical facility. Although we are delighted by the 15 words on both page and collar, and enjoy imagining the discomfort and chagrin of the courtiers duped into reading them, are we not collared by the poet as well? Does not "Whose dog are you?" snap it's collar and break out of its canine fiction, to challenge us to reflect on what powers there be that control our lives?

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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2023 David Alpaugh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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