The loss of my dog, Harry, is still very much on my mind and soon I have to collect his ashes and bring him home. It isn’t the first time I have mourned the loss of a dog and it set me to thinking about all the other dogs lost through the centuries that were loved by their humans. Every dog is the best dog in the world in the eyes of their owner, so having the animal buried or cremated doesn’t seem at all ridiculous or extravagant. I am lucky in that a close friend who loved Harry has made a donation to his casket so he can have the one he deserves.
Of course many dogs have owners who are willing and able to go that extra mile to immortalise them. Such a dog was Lord Byron’s beloved Newfoundland, Boatswain.
From an early age, Byron was an animal lover and he was to become a pet owner on an industrial scale in adult life, keeping a bear, a fox, four monkeys and a badger among a wide variety of other creatures. All his pets, apart from his horses, lived indoors in his various homes in England, Greece, Switzerland and Italy.
When Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron is said to have nursed the dog himself, careless of the dangers to his own health. Rabies was widespread in England at that time – in fact the disease wasn’t eradicated in the UK until 1902 – and there was no cure. Poor Boatswain was only five years old when he died.
The poet was recorded as saying of the dog, “he expired in a state of madness…after suffering much, yet retaining all the gentleness of his nature to the last; never attempting to do the least injury to anyone near him. I have now lost everything.”
I had the privilege of seeing Boatswain’s tomb for myself in 1976 when I visited Newstead Abbey, Lord Byron’s ancestral home in Nottinghamshire. This marble monument is an extremely impressive structure and certainly larger and grander than the tomb of his master, who was buried in the family vault in St Mary Magdalene Church in Hucknall Torkard.
Lord Byron was famously “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, yet I feel a kinship with anyone who could love a dog enough to build a memorial of this kind in his honour. And it isn’t only the magnificence of the tomb that pays homage to the animal, but also the Epitaph to a Dog inscribed upon it.
Epitaph to a Dog
Near this Spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity
Strength without Insolence
Courage without Ferocity
And all the virtues of Man without his Vices
This praise which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN a DOG,
Who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
And died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one – and here he lies.
Recent DNA analysis provides us with an interesting footnote to this story of a man and his dog. In Byron’s day it was the custom for lovers to exchange a lock of their hair. When a hundred samples of hair sent by Byron to his various lovers and fans were analysed, it was revealed that most of them came from a canine! No doubt Boatswain had provided them.