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An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog -- Oliver Goldsmith

(Poem #286) An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog
  Good people all, of every sort,
  Give ear unto my song;
  And if you find it wondrous short,
  It cannot hold you long.

  In Islington there was a man,
  Of whom the world might say
  That still a godly race he ran,
  Whene'er he went to pray.

  A kind and gentle heart he had,
  To comfort friends and foes;
  The naked every day he clad,
  When he put on his clothes.

  And in that town a dog was found,
  As many dogs there be,
  Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
  And curs of low degree.

  This dog and man at first were friends;
  But when a pique began,
  The dog, to gain some private ends,
  Went mad and bit the man.

  Around from all the neighbouring streets
  The wondering neighbours ran,
  And swore the dog had lost his wits,
  To bite so good a man.

  The wound it seemed both sore and sad
  To every Christian eye;
  And while they swore the dog was mad,
  They swore the man would die.

  But soon a wonder came to light,
  That showed the rogues they lied:
  The man recovered of the bite,
  The dog it was that died.
-- Oliver Goldsmith
Another wonderfully cutting poem, the irony being all the better for being
understated. The verse, likewise, has a deliberately simple rhythm to it, an
appeal to 'popularity' established by the first stanza, where the narrator
is cast into the mould of storyteller rather than 'high' poet.

Of course, the poem itself is clear enough, and its central character
practically a stereotype, but there's apparently more to it than that -
according to the Dictionary of Sensibility,

  The dog, as we know, is Friedrich Nietzsche; [...] a figure of
  sensibility, the mad philosopher/prophet/poet who either heals or infects
  the community.

Well, I didn't know, but I'll take their word for it. It goes on to explain
the bite as an act that 'exposes the community's belief in the harmlessness
of corruption'. Read the whole theory at
[broken link]


Biography and Assessment:

 Goldsmith, Oliver

  b. Nov. 10, 1730, Kilkenny West, County Westmeath, Ire.
  d. April 4, 1774, London

  The son of an Irish clergyman, he was graduated from Trinity College,
  Dublin, in 1749. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and Leiden, but his
  career as a physician was quite unsuccessful. In 1756 he settled in
  London, where he achieved some success as a miscellaneous contributor to
  periodicals and as the author of Enquiry into the Present State of Polite
  Learning in Europe (1759). But it was not until The Citizen of the World
  (1762), a series of whimsical and satirical essays, that he was recognized
  as an able man of letters. His fame grew with The Traveler (1764), a
  philosophic poem, and the nostalgic pastoral The Deserted Village (1770).
  However, his literary reputation rests on his two comedies, The
  Good-natur'd Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and his only
  novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). His comedies injected a much-needed
  sense of realism into the dull, sentimental plays of the period. They are
  lively, witty, and imbued with an endearing humanity. The Vicar of
  Wakefield is the warm, humorous, if somewhat melodramatic, story of a
  country parson and his family. Although he earned a great deal of money in
  his lifetime, Goldsmith's improvidence kept him poor. Boswell depicted him
  as a ridiculous, blundering, but tenderhearted and generous creature. He
  had the friendship of many of the literary and artistic great of his day,
  the most notable being that of Samuel Johnson.

        -- Columbia Encyclopedia

 Goldsmith's rise from total obscurity was a matter of only a few years. He
 worked as an apothecary's assistant, school usher, physician, and as a hack
 writer--reviewing, translating, and compiling. It remains amazing that this
 young Irish vagabond, unknown, uncouth, unlearned, and unreliable, was yet
 able within a few years to climb from obscurity to mix with aristocrats and
 the intellectual elite of London. Such a rise was possible because
 Goldsmith had one quality, soon noticed by booksellers and the public, that
 his fellow literary hacks did not possess--the gift of a graceful, lively,
 and readable style.


 When Oliver Goldsmith died he had achieved eminence among the writers of
 his time as an essayist, a poet, and a dramatist. He was one "who left
 scarcely any kind of writing untouched and who touched nothing that he did
 not adorn"--such was the judgment expressed by his friend Dr. Johnson. His
 contemporaries were as one in their high regard for Goldsmith the writer,
 but they were of different minds concerning the man himself. He was, they
 all agreed, one of the oddest personalities of his time.


 Goldsmith's success as a writer lay partly in the charm of personality
 emanated by his style--his affection for his characters, his mischievous
 irony, and his spontaneous interchange of gaiety and sadness. He was, as a
 writer, "natural, simple, affecting." It is by their human personalities
 that his novel and his plays succeed, not by any brilliance of plot, ideas,
 or language. In the poems again it is the characters that are remembered
 rather than the landscapes--the village parson, the village schoolmaster,
 the sharp, yet not unkindly portraits of Garrick and Burke. Goldsmith's
 poetry lives by its own special softening and mellowing of the traditional
 heroic couplet into simple melodies that are quite different in character
 from the solemn and sweeping lines of 18th-century blank verse. In his
 novel and plays Goldsmith helped to humanize his era's literary
 imagination, without growing sickly or mawkish. Goldsmith saw people, human
 situations, and indeed the human predicament from the comic point of view;
 he was a realist, something of a satirist, but in his final judgments
 unfailingly charitable.

        -- EB

85 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Martin DeMello said...

Also spracht Martin Julian DeMello...
>> according to the Dictionary of Sensibility,
> The dog, as we know, is Friedrich Nietzsche; [...] a figure of
> sensibility, the mad philosopher/prophet/poet who either heals or
> infects the community.
> Well, I didn't know, but I'll take their word for it. It goes on to explain

And as several people have pointed out, Nietzsche lived *after* Goldsmith
did, so shame on me for not being more awake. I still liked the central
theory of the man as society and the dog as the 'mad' poet-philosopher,


Charlave said...

what is this poem about its very good

SwanWhiteco1 said...

I came to this site because I have just finished W. Somerset Maugham's The
Painted Veil. In it, the cuckholded husband dies of cholera and his last
word's are "The dog it was that died."
Very apropos,
Claudia, Wilmette, Illinois

Goksu OZCAN said...

I have written this poem only two line on The Painted Veil(S.Maugham's book) and I have interested it...I found it and I liked

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Stephen W Smoliar said...

I am surprised that none of your readers knew that Tom Stoppard wrote a
play entitled THE DOG IT WAS THAT DIED. The protagonist is caught up in
a recursive loop of counter-espionage and is probably man and mad dog
wrapped up into one. (The dog that DOES die is a barge dog, not mad at
all.) Given that the subject is spies and the author is Stoppard, one
has to imagine that the author was familiar with THE SPY WHO CAME IN
FROM THE COLD. If YOU do not remember, when the protagonist is asked
what he believes in, he replies, "I believe that the Number 10 bus will
take me to Islington."

Literature communicates,
Steve Smoliar

Stephen W. Smoliar />
601 Van Ness Avenue; Unit 74; San Francisco, CA 94102

Elizabeth Wilby Harvey said...

I also came to this site because I have just finished reading Somerset
Maugham's "The Painted Veil". - And I must admit I am still puzzled at the
meaning of "It was the dog that died" ....... Uttered by Walter on his death
bed ....

William ferguson said...

I have done the same as Claudia. I just finished The Painted
Veil" last night.
William Ferguson

kalonica said...

Hi claudia?
If you want, you can read what I just wrote about this line in the W.
Somerset Maugham novel....

[broken link]

I followed the Wikipedia entry to the blue Oliver Goldsmith page too.
After I'd written my review, I saw your comment there and thought you
might appreciate reading it.

Ahhh, the internet can be fun!


JoyMrgn262 said...


Saw the reference to the poem in Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil. Had to
look up the poem to read the entire thing. I'm lost as to exactly what the
heck Maugham was referring to. In the book on my copy it is page 199 it says
"the dog it was that died."

I'm of two minds here. At first in the poem as put up beside the book, I
think it is referring to the book's two main characters. Then at the end and even
in the middle of the poem I think the character in the book is referring
perhaps to the cholera epidemic.

Your thoughts?

I'm reading the book for my book group which meets on Monday, March 19, 2007,
at Annie Bloom's bookstore in Portland, Oregon, USA, to discuss the book. If
you're in town, stop by. We meet at 7:30pm.

A bientot.
Joy Morgan

CYNGREVE said...

I, too came to this page from The Painted Veil. I like Walter now even
better than I did while reading the book. Maugham doesn't tell us if his wife ever
looked up the quote.


Morgan Wyche said...

I think a number of others, in having read The Painted Veil, esp after the film's debut, will be looking into this site. Why? Because in the story, Walter Fane's dying words are a quotation from poem's last line but with little explanation to follow. However, as the story is about a woman's spiritual journey, it is as if Somerset Maugham has set his reader on a small quest to find out more when the story seems finished. What might be behind the 'Painted Veil' may be what is concealed behind the story!

I saw the 'dog' as how Walter Fane first viewed his wife, but came to see it as himself before he died. Though he had been described in virtuous terms of having saved lives, he had still brought his wife into a choleric area in the hope that she would die of it. In contrast to him, Kitty Fane had first been cruel and had an affair that broke her husband's heart, but she becomes changed by the humility of nuns, enough to 'grow up'. It becomes Kitty, who was portrayed as undeserving, who will be enlivened with pregnancy, whilst Walter, once of ability 'to comfort friends and foes' will be the one who will die of cholera!

It is as if Fanes' last words is a suggestion that Maugham intended a twist to the tale. People, it seems, can be changed through suffering and may even be enriched by it. The wife, we learn, is forgiven through the use of self depreciation. Fane has become 'the dog' who must die because he effectively bit his wife in having once calculated her death. And though after his death Kitty goes on with a spiritual journey that continues to make her grow up, she never does find out that Walter had forgiven because unlike us, she never did seek out the meaning of the poem to make the connection with why her husband would ever have quoted from it!

Jeanie Faulkner said...

The Painted Veil sent me here too. But who did the "mad dog" bite --? Kitty?

Jeanie Faulkner

Kramer Debora said...

Our book club is reading The Painted Veil and the reference in the story
to this poem led me to this site. The point of the poem lent a great
deal to understanding Walter's frame of mind regarding Kitty. I think
Kitty was right, he should have forgiven her.

Debora L. Kramer, PhD

Roswell Park Cancer Institute

Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Elm and Carlton St.

Buffalo, NY 14263


Janine Kelley said...

The dying words of the brilliant and admired, though tragically unloved physician Walter Fane in the exquisite novel The Painted Veil were The dog it was that died. Perhaps the man symbolizes the corrupt, imperialistic society of British Hong Kong. Or perhaps the man represents Kitty who possesses such a shallow heart that she is incapable of loving a man as fine and as good as Walter.
Walter is also a bacteriologist. His fatal disease was his unrequited love for Kitty. The man in Goldsmith's elegy might also be the feckless education system that young women in Britain suffered in the 1920's.
The author Somerset Maugham was unflinching in his study of human nature. It could just be that Walter was both man and dog, for his motives in going to the cholera-infested Chinese village were not wholly pure. Did he bring his fragile wife to the cholera infested village so she would die and be punished for her adultery? Human motives are complex. A Romantic, was Walter still trying to protect the immature Kitty and, quite possibly, awaken what was good, what was fine in her dormant soul? In the film Walter succeeded and Kitty discovers both her soul and true heart. Given the opportunity, Kitty was capable of being more than a pretty face.
In the novel, the reader is left to wonder why Kitty simply could not love her husband who possesses such a brave and noble heart. I did. At the end of the novel, Kitty becomes somewhat of a nun caring gratefully for her long neglected father, foreswearing her sexual identity, hoping to raise her unborn daughter to be free.
I shall never quite forgive her for not telling Walter that she loved him on his deathbed. Even if she didn't. As her name implies, Kitty never quite grows up, though she undergoes a transformation of sorts. Kind too late.
Still Maugham's novel, in some ways, surpasses Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. At least the beautiful wife seeking love in all the wrong beds did not die a wretched death. In the end, all three are punished for their sexuality.
It is worth noting that Somerset Maugham's original surname for Walter was Lane. Kitty's marriage to Walter was a pathway or lane to her better self.
Janine Kelley
"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library," the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges reflected.

Dave & Barbara Taylor said...

I, also, came to this site after reading the Painted Veil. I wanted to find some notation of forgiveness and mercy in Walter's last words. This quotation gives none. Instead, it shows Walter as dying with the retained bitterness and an over-inflated opinion of his own worth. After all, his actions were motivated not by a love of the humanity he served in the cholera epidemic, but a detached scientific interest and malice toward his wife.

Marty Sommercamp said...

What does this poem mean or symbolize? I just finished reading THE PAINTED
VEIL and the last line are the final words of one of the main characters
when he dies. It is driving me crazy to find the connection!!

Walter and Faith said...

This writer seems to me to be emphasizing our need to forgive...for if we do not ...we are the ones who will suffer and find no peace. The Holy Bible teaches the same. As human beings...we MUST forgive those who do us wrong (as Jesus did) for holding it will "poison" us. Somerset Maughm illustrates this in his novel The Painted Veil ... a genius he must have been. F
Faith & Skip (Walter) Wainwright

Noam Ofek said...

I also just finished reading Maugham's The Painted Veil.

Claudia, I pray explain to me (for English is not my mother's tongue):

In Maugham's book was Walter the dog? Was his trial to make Kitty infected
with cholera his "bite" ?

Do you recommend any other book of Maugham's?

Lizu Ofek, Jerusalem, Israel.

Kathi McIntire said...

Same here, Claudia - just finished Maugham's masterful work. Further proof of WSM's genius is leading us to further research and a whole new author, Goldsmith, to enjoy.

Thanks for the site!

kathi in TN

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Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the person who is truly good lived...and so we are led to believe that Kitty is "good" (The Painted Veil-why I'm here too!)

Roseamber Sumner said...

In the original Goldsmith poem, I ask myself, why did the dog bite the man? I know it was mad, but why do mad dogs bite? Could it be that they are trying to connect, that in their madness, a bite is the only way they can understand to make contact? This good man was driven mad by his broken heart and then, as he is dying of cholera, he understands that he has bitten what he loved most, and now he is going to die. It is almost introspective and not to be heard by Kitty at all, so it doesn't really matter that she never looks it up to find the significance. She already knows that he loved her, that he had a broken heart and that she forgave him and is now on the journey to forgive herself. A most satisfying book!

Anonymous said...

For me, it is crystal clear -- Walter has already acknowledged that he had originally hoped that Kitty will die when she was forced to go with him to the cholera infested region. Now, as their relationship matures in these terrible conditions and he is "hoist by his own petard", he can see the irony of the situation, that Kitty is healthy with a new life growing within her, while he will die of the cholera he had originally wished on her, "a pretty kettle of fish" as he sardonically calls it.--Wendy

Derek said...

I haven't read the "Painted Veil". I just like the poem. The point of the poem is that sometimes the unexpected happens. In the poem everyone expected that the man would die and the dog would live. But of course that was not what happened. Going by what people have said in earlier comments. This is exactly what happened in the "Painted Veil": the one who was expected to die lived; the one who was expected to live, died.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

pretty awful

Anonymous said...

Dogs pwn

Anonymous said...

Uber sucky

Anonymous said...

The guy is Jesus

Mike Hunt said...

My friend Mike Hawk loved it

Anonymous said...

I have watched the film and immediately read the book The Painted Veil. Thanks for helping me understand Walter Fane's last words.

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Somerset Maugham has wonderful epithets for most of his books. I recently read "The Painted Veil". This poem by Oliver Goldsmith is appropriate to the story in many interpretations it seems. I have been going over it and over it, and finally I choose this: the dog it was that died because he bit a rabid or sick man.

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Anonymous said...

The explanation offered by the Dictionary of Sensibility makes no sense to me. Goldsmith died in 1774, fully 70 years before the birth of Nietzche in 1844. I don't see how "the dog, as we know, is Friedrich Nietzche". Seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, didn't see that this has already been pointed out. Failed to read the first post.

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Anonymous said...

Unexpected outcomes may be the theme of the poem by Goldsmith.
Walter's chosen method of chastising his wife certainly had an unexpected outcome. It is Walter who is the dog. Who would have guessed it would be him that would be overcome by disease. The reader of the Painted Veil at the beginning of the story would probably guessed it would be Kitty that would fall Ill as she would not have had the same knowledge and scientific education as her husband. I might further conjector that Kitty is angry like the dog because all too often women were maginalised in terms of education and employment, therefore robbed of opportunities and means to gain independence without the aid of a husband.

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DavidMJordan said...

I've always assumed that the point of the poem is that even a good man is more poisonous than a rabid dog. I came across the quote on the cover of a collection of articles by the satirist Alan Coren, whose humorous stories chronicled the foibles of humanity.

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Pete Duckers said...

What many readers have failed to grasp is the sheer irony of Walter's last words - he took Kitty to China in the hope she would catch Cholera and die. Instead he caught it and died - hence the obtuse expression, "The dog it was that died"

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Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading the Painted Veil and there are so many different ways in which Walter's last words could be interpreted: it's driving me insane not to know which one to settle with!

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Anonymous said...

I was researching Goldsmith for a mini-bio and came across this site. Now I have to read The Painted Veil!

the misfit said...

Also just finished reading The Painted Veil and figured there was an explanation in the poem. Maugham wasn't being coy: the reader in his day would have known this poem (though I did not). And it's the perfect response from Walter. Kitty pointed out just a few pages before that he used sarcasm to protect his great sensitivity. He was deeply introspective as well, and though sick, he would have seen the irony: he expected her to die there; more than that, he brought her there (and ate the salad, got no sleep, lost tons of weight, and did whatever experiments on himself) out of a fatalistic mania. Kitty recognized in that part of the story that with her pregnancy came the opportunity to turn things around for them, but that he would need a big emotional push to forgive her. Clearly the fact of his dying qualified. He was recognizing in his last moments that although he had seen himself as the wounded innocent because she cheated and he was so much more sophisticated, in fact, he was the "dog": she repented and changed her behavior, and tried to repair things; he refused to forgive her or help heal their relationship - in fact, he knowingly took huge risks with his life, not for the sake of healing others' suffering, but because he was bitter and courting death. His comment is a cross between "joke's on me" and "you were the bigger person after all." He does forgive her, but he has to do it in a sardonic way.

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