Original poem reprinted online here: "The Victor Dog" by James Merrill
Originally read: July 28, 2013
More information about the Poet: James Merrill
Quatrains. ABBA rhyme scheme. The poem has ten stanzas. The general gist of the poem is how a dog is trained to listen to music (note how to "feel" music) but this is not the main function of the poem. Rather the poem goes through distinctive musical styles in which the speaker is able to play in the poem due to the persona taking more of the "judgmental role."
The play starts with the first line, "Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez," the play of just naming musicians through alliteration, but who is listening here, "The little white dog on the Victor label / Listens long and hard as he is able. It's all in a days work, whatever plays." The actions of the dog builds him up to a metaphor. What type of metaphor? The one that takes responsibility for the following play. This is how the "dog" interprets the music."
"From judgement, it would seem, he has refrained. / He even listens earnestly to Bloch," The dog chooses, not the speaker. This brings up the point of how well does the reader have to understand each musical reference. As with all allusions and references, it is up to the poem to entice the reader into researching Bloch who, "builds a church upon our acid rock." But the focus goes back to the dog, "He's man's--no--he's the Leiermann's best friend." The judgement and description of the dog is more play, but play about the dog, not a judgement on the music, once again.
"Or would be if hearing and listening were the same." The distinction is placed here. Note though, there is no value judgement on either or, just noting the difference. "Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells / Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel's 'Les jets d'eau du palais de ceux qui saiment." The mention of the senses indicate experience -- if the dog is unable to "hear" the dog is still able to "experience" and respond. The dog, built up by the speaker, experiences and thinks.
"He ponders the Schumann Concerto's tall willow hit / By lighting, and stays put." Note the distinction between thinking about sound and the actual sound. There's a slight implication that the dog might not "stay put" and the sound of lightning based on the mention of the action. However, in the mode of pondering, the dog is either a) on another level of thinking or b) not "truly" thinking about the music. "When he surmises / Through on of Bach's eternal boxwood mazes / The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat," the dog is thinking and relating to it's own experience -- sure the simile is crass in human standards, but in "dog standards" it's the only phrase that could bring out an intrinsic instinctual desire based on smell (which is mentioned in an earlier stanza as a primary sense)
"Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum / Or the moon in Worzzeck reddens ripe for murder, / He doesn't sneeze or howl; he just listens harder." Ah, the distinction is made. The dog listens. By the standards in the poem, to hear is based on the sense, the listen is based on trying to understand through the sense. And the dog listens. "Adamant needles bear down on him from / Whirling of outer space, too black, too near- But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch." So here's the thing about listening.
You have to teach a dog to listen. Yes, there's the chance of a parallel metaphor that humans need to be taught to listen as well. But the act of listening is for the "dog" -- so the grandiose statement and idea is buffered a bit. Now the benefits or drawbacks of being taught to listen, "Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche / Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear" is how to express listening. Experience is taking things in. Expressing is how one deals with experience. And with these lines the dog (not the human, not the speaker) has less intimate feel, was once able to bark at King Lear, but perhaps, it is implied that the dog cannot anymore.
"Still others fought in the road's filth over Jezebel, / Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons." Here "the others" come into play here and look how exaggerated "the others" actions are, fight, slaver, pelt -- all very physical reactions instead of contemplative and this is what the dog, inately, wants to do, "His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance. / Can nature change in him? Nothing's impossible." Note the rhetorical question, now, is based more on the speaker's judgement. Note until now, the speaker did not judge the music -- it's the dog, the listener, the one who expereience, but is unable to emote:
The last chord fades. the night is cold and fine.
His master's voice rasps through the grooves' bare grooves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave's
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone.
The master comes into play with these lines, but also note that the power the master is set in more of the exposition. The master has trained the dog -- to do what? "silence like the grave" and "sleep there on the still-warm gramophone." When, and where, and (implicitly) how to listen to music.
However, the poem continues on to the only free place for a dog, "Only to dream he is at the premiere of Handel / Opera long thought lost-ll Cane Minroe." This is what the dog desires -- there's an argument here that the teachings are so ingrained in the dog that the dog desires nothing more or that the dog is so beyond basic desires that the dog wants more. Meh whatever works for the reader. Why am I so flippant?
"Its allegorical subject is the story!" That's right, the dog makes this distinction, and the speaker does in a sense, but it's buffed by the dream of the dog. The allegory, what this scene represents, is the story -- note this applies to Handel, and can be implied with the rest of this poem, which I have been doing but not committing. Why?
A little dog revolving around a spindle / Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief." the poem goes into the surreal based on the dream sequence. How the dog is tied to the sound. I feel the speaker is playing with the idea of finding meaning in this poem by bringing in the absurd. A cast of stars...Is there in Victor's heart / No honey for the vanquished? Art is Art. / The life it ask of us is a dog's life." The last two sentences seem to be important here, what Art asks of "us" is a dog's life. So this poem confirms itself as an Ars Poetica here, but when all the metaphors and allusions are possible explained out, (like what I did), the confirmation brings more suspicion to me. The play in the poem stands out the most, but not the conclusion.