‘The Power of the Dog’ by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), prolific poet, novelist, and writer of short fiction for both adults and children, extols the dog’s most famous virtue – its undying loyalty and devotion to its owner – but also warns against giving your heart to a dog for it ‘to tear’. Dogs, for Kipling, are not just man’s best friend: they are heartbreakers.
The Power of the Dog
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find – it’s your own affair, –
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!),
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes – for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear!
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent,
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve;
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long –
So why in – Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
In his 1899 story ‘Garm – a Hostage’, Rudyard Kipling outlined how his dog, Vixen, would sleep in his bed with him at night. Kipling was a dog-lover, who enjoyed a close bond with the animals throughout his life. As Andrew Lycett observes in his superb biography Rudyard Kipling, Kipling’s dogs often took on the role of the woman in his life.
So it should come as little surprise that Kipling wrote a poem in praise of the bond between men and dogs. ‘The Power of the Dog’ suggests that dogs have such a hold over men that they can, indeed, break a man’s heart as a woman can: ‘So why in – Heaven (before we are there) / Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?’
Dogs are so heart-breaking because their lifespans are significantly shorter than our own, so we have to suffer the heartbreak of burying several loyal companions in one lifetime (as Kipling himself did). Whilst the tone and rhythm of ‘The Power of the Dog’ come across as song-like (especially with its refrain closing each stanza) and almost playful and light, there’s no doubt that Kipling was being serious about the close bond humans can have with their canine companions.