Oh, there are so many! Some are filled with an almost mystical wonder at the animal kingdom. Some are playful, others tragic. How to choose? Well, we’ll pick five, but we’d love to hear your own favorites.
5. “Dog’s Death” by John Updike
She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”
We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.
Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried
To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.
Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.
4. “On The Death Of A Favourite Cat, Drowned In A Tub Of Gold Fishes” by Thomas Gray
‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.
Still had she gazed; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev’ry wat’ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav’rite has no friend!
From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
3. “Snake” by D.H. Lawrence
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
2. “An Octopus” by Marianne Moore
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend—a much needed invention—
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
of unimagined delicacy.
“Picking periwinkles from the cracks”
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward “spider fashion
on its arms” misleading like lace;
its “ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.”
The fir-trees, in “the magnitude of their root systems,”
rise aloof from these maneuvers “creepy to behold,”
austere specimens of our American royal families,
“each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,”
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
“stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,”
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
“hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight”—
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
“conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company”;
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror—
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
“merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat “slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather”;
of “thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,”
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of “blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.”
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall—
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to “grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,”
it stands its ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor—
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white—
upon this antique pedestal,
“a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,”
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which “the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,”
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who “have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps—who prefer to”;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
“in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees”;
“the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log”;
the water ouzel
with “its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,”
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan “in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat”;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
“fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,”
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and “several hours of frost every midsummer night.”
“They make a nice appearance, don’t they,”
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice—
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate “names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster”—
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road “climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.”
No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.
“Like happy souls in Hell,” enjoying mental difficulties,
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was “so noble and fair”;
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
“alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.”
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere—
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
“the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.”
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
“complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts”;
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to “an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power”—
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
“Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard”;
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where “guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.”
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness—
like Henry James “damned by the public for decorum”;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out—a public out of sympathy
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,”
it receives one under winds that “tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.”
Is “tree” the word for these things
“flat on the ground like vines”?
some “bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape”
from the hard mountain “planned by ice and polished by the wind”—
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak—
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
“with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.”
1. “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.