Guest poem sent in by Michael Rudko as part of the recent dream theme
(Poem #1256) The Pardon
My dog lay dead five days without a grave In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine And a jungle of grass and honey-suckle vine. I who had loved him while he kept alive Went only close enough to where he was To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell Twined with another odor heavier still And hear the flies' intolerable buzz. Well, I was ten and very much afraid. In my kind world the dead were out of range And I could not forgive the sad or strange In beast or man. My father took the spade And buried him. Last night I saw the grass Slowly divide (it was the same scene But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green) And saw the dog emerging. I confess I felt afraid again, but still he came In the carnal sun, clothed in a hymn of flies, And death was breeding in his lively eyes. I started in to cry and call his name, Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head. ..I dreamt the past was never past redeeming: But whether this was false or honest dreaming I beg death's pardon now. And mourn the dead.
1950 The poem is about the avoidance of and ultimate confrontation with mortality. But on a much more immediate level it's about loving a dog and dreading its death, one of my life's great realities. The ten year old boy is able to admit his love only as long as the dog "kept alive" (great use of the word "kept") and is unwilling or unable to even look at the dog's dead body. The most he can do is "sniff" the odor of decay which is marvelously "twined" with the smell of the honeysuckle, and briefly tolerate the flies' "intolerable buzz". His world is "kind", and he blames (can't "forgive") the dog for dying. He reveals both his inability to face death's harsh reality and his deeper intuitive awareness of its meaning with the euphemistic, powerful phrase "the sad or strange/in beast or man". He shirks his responsibility, and relies on his father to perform the ritual burial of his pet. When the dog returns to the boy years later in a marvelous, terrible dream, it's the "same scene" but different. The green of pine and honey-suckle has a "fierce and mortal" glow. The "intolerable buzz" has become a hymn of flies. The dog crawls out of the jungle with his "lively eyes" alive with death, probably maggots. And the man at last returns to his boyhood fear without evasion, crying and calling out the dog's name (which in another great touch we never discover, as if it were too precious to reveal). Finally, the boy who "could not forgive" is forced to ask forgiveness of a "tongueless" dog unable to offer that most sacred of canine kindnesses, a lick. In the poem's powerful finale, Wilbur reveals the deeper meaning of the dream ("the past is never past redeeming"), dispenses with it ("whether this be false or honest"), and assumes the awesome duty of begging pardon of and mourning for his dead, both beast and man. The formality of the poem makes it. It could never be so solemn and forceful in free verse. It meets Nabokov's test, fusing head and heart and yielding the salutary spinal tingle that is the signal of great art. Michael