Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Homer gives Odysseus a loyal dog, and Catullus laments for his Lesbia's sparrow. In more intense detail than either classical poet, the 18th-century Englishman William Cowper (1731-1800) closely observes the psychology and behavior of his pet rabbits. Cowper's "Epitaph on a Hare" includes these memorable lines on a loved, though less than perfectly lovable, creature: "Old Tiney, surliest of his kind, / Who, nursed with tender care, / And to domestic bounds confined, / Was still a wild jack-hare. / Though duly from my hand he took / His pittance every night, / He did it with a jealous look, / And, when he could, would bite."

Cowper reports Tiney's diet: "wheaten bread,/ And milk, and oats, and straw,/ Thistles, or lettuces instead,/ With sand to scour his maw. . . . And, when his juicy salads failed, / Sliced carrot pleased him well." He recounts that the rabbit liked to "gambol like a fawn" on the carpet, "And swing his rump around." In the elegiac conclusion, Cowper reflects on his motives for keeping a pet and, by implication, on his own mortality:

Eight years and five round-rolling moons

He thus saw steal away,

Dozing out all his idle noons,

And every night at play,

I kept him for his humour's sake,

For he would oft beguile

My heart of thoughts that made it ache,

And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade

He finds his long, last home,

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