How to Eulogize an Animal
Gabrielle Bellot on Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, and Saying Goodbye to Dead Pets
My first dog arrived by sea, tired and bedraggled on his journey from Barbados to Dominica. I was a kid when the German Shepherd showed up in the garage one yellow afternoon, lying on the stone floor, exhausted from his voyage, looking for all the world like a brown-black wolf from some winter woodland. He was already medium-sized. My parents knew the man who had brought him to us, and though he was just from a few islands away, to me he seemed almost sidereal, alien, as I had never been around a large canine before. After minutes of hesitation, I tiptoed up to him with the surreptitious footfalls of a cartoon thief, but I was too afraid to touch him. I ran back inside.
Chinook, we christened him, after a Pacific-American wind. At first, he was quiet, cautious, feeling out who we were. In a few weeks, we lost our fear of each other. He became my best friend at home, the person-but-not-quite-a-person I could run around with and playfully wrestle and chase lizards with and tell tales of my existential angst to while the evening rose, with her orange shawl and stellar pearls, over the sea. (For years, I talked to my dogs, as I was an only child with no one else to talk to many afternoons; the dogs sat beside me on the grassy hill with more politeness than I deserved, listening with drooping eyes and the occasional blustery sneeze.) He was wonderfully just-there, an uncritical receptacle for my childhood loneliness. I laughed when he barked and savagely growled at our jeep’s tires when we left home. Once, he chased my cousin’s pickup past our gates, following the vehicle all the way to the crumbling main road of our village. But in general, Chinook was somber, quiet, even filled with a lupine refinement.
When our next Shepherd, a puppy, hid under the jeep the first time he met Chinook, we named him Lucky, the puppy who had escaped Chinook’s surprised anger at finding a new dog in his territory. Soon, they bonded. They feasted on fallen mangoes, guavas, and avocados; coconuts they tore to shreds, strewing the grass with the fruit’s brown hair. The nights would be loud with the barks of their gladiatorial combat with manicous, agoutis, feral cats, and whatever other wildlife had the misfortune of wandering into our yard. Feeling the bounds of our yard too small, the wolf-dogs would leap over the fence or dig beneath it and disappear, for days, on extraordinary quests, returning, when we had given up all hope, slathered in mud and grass and panting with a grinning guilt. Lucky’s name took on additional meaning when one of my aunts, who drove with the fierceness of someone wronged, ran him over by mistake, and my father, along with a vet, saved his life.
We lost our dogs, one by one. Without warning, Chinook turned on me and began to attack me, over and over; one day, the last time I saw him, he was strapped into the back of a green pickup, because my parents had decided the only way to protect me was to give him away. Our helper swept rat poison outside one afternoon by mistake; Lucky ate the lethiferous blue pellets and died, slowly, while we watched, knowing, on the advice of our vet, we could only try to ease his pain. I tried to pet him, comfort him, coax, through my childishness, the poison out of him with my pleas, but he was dead the moment he swallowed the pellets. Another Shepherd died of cancer; a plucky undersized Belgian Malinois named Saber had to be put down after attacking friendly people who lived nearby; Cosmo, the only Rottweiler I had—a burly, loving being who we kept stumbling over because of his habit of walking directly in front us as if to guard us from any threat in the grasses—disappeared, tempted away by someone who wished to steal him, which broke our hearts.
They were just dogs—not particularly well-behaved ones, at that—and yet they were more. They were (usually) non-discriminating companions, who became friends, in that invisible way our pets shift into our loved ones. When Lucky finally died, I cried. It was one of the first times I had seen Death claim something—claim someone, really, as our pets exist somewhere between persons and nature less red in tooth and claw.
We grew accustomed to losing them. But I always missed them. I knew they were gone when I heard, felt, the silence around our home with no dogs to bark or growl. I had human friends, a bestie, crushes, a brimming extended family, but my pets had been my companions at home; I began to go on more walks outside, alone, and inside me, too, along the quiet beach of myself.
Their dying taught me a bit of coldness—the way to accept deaths, as the Earth does each day. That coldness, I realized later, was a piece of adulthood.
One night, while on a stroll in Ceylon from his bungalow by the sea, Pablo Neruda stumbled and fell in front of an oncoming train. The conductor did not see him on the tracks at first; instead, he heard the wild barks of Neruda’s faithful dog, Kuthaka. Curious, he looked out and saw the Chilean poet sprawled on the tracks, and he slowed down just in time. Struck by the event, Neruda vowed to name each of his future dogs after Kuthaka (which he did). A faithful canine, it turned out, had altered the course of literary history.
Animals, indeed, sustained him as well as people in his days in Colombo on the island of Ceylon, where the Chilean government had transferred him in 1928. In his bungalow in Wellawatta, he lived simply. Although he had Brampy, a servant boy, his most constant companions were perhaps Kuthaka and a long-tailed mongoose named Kiria. Like Edward Gorey and his cats, Neruda found a special comforting pleasure in the presence of animals. When one Kuthaka died, Neruda memorialized him in a remarkable poem, “A Dog Has Died,” a piece that, like Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, “The Death of the Moth,” shows how we can talk about and eulogize animals without slipping into mawkishness, while also reflecting on larger questions about how and why death strikes.
It can be difficult to devote an entire piece to the death of a pet or of some serendipitously encountered creature without seeming overwrought. At the same time, however, people who leap to criticize heartfelt pieces about a lost nonhuman companion may be revealing their own lack of awareness of just how deep the bond between a human and a nonhuman companion can be. Kurt Vonengut, after all, was able to write, in the short story “EPICAC,” a moving eulogy for a supercomputer that seems to fall in love with a human; the story works because Vonnegut describes EPICAC, the computer, in such detail that “he” seems to come to life. This, too, is how Neruda and Woolf earn the emotion in their pieces: by how concretely and carefully they capture and conjure the creatures in question. Neruda’s poem and Woolf’s essay are dense with emotion, yet both modulate their feelings in such a way that these two deaths not only work as eulogies for a dog and a moth, but transform their deaths into larger meditations on human life and death.
“My dog has died,” begins Neruda’s poem. “I buried him in the garden / next to a rusted old machine.” Like the title of the poem, these opening lines are blunt, simple, and direct; the title reads almost like a newspaper headline, revealing little of Neruda’s emotions. “Some day I’ll join him right there,” the poet continues in the next stanza, “but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat, / his bad manners and cold nose.” These initial descriptions seem commonplace in their deprecating cuteness; I would frequently praise my dogs by telling them, half-jokingly, how devilishly they behaved. But right off the bat, Neruda undercuts the bluntness of his opening lines by revealing that he may be buried where his dog is, suggesting the closeness of their kinship. He describes, too, “a heaven for all dogdom” that “I, the materialist, who never believed / in any promised heaven in the sky / for any human being…[will] never enter.” Neruda, an atheist, ludically imagines his dog deserving a happy afterlife, even if humans do not, though his description of this is short and simple enough to avoid seeming overwrought.Sometimes, it is enough, as Neruda understood, to have someone look at us to remind us we exist, and that someone, or something, cares that we do.
Still, Neruda is unsparing in his description of his relationship to his pet. “His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine / withholding its authority, / was the friendship of a star, aloof,” Neruda says, “with no more intimacy than was called for, / with no exaggerations.” It is a curious, distinct observation that itself seems cool, distanced, conjuring up a sense of the stargazer’s relationship to the night sky, where the stars may comfort and awe, yet always, ultimately, feel far-away, unreachable, even, perhaps, at some philosophical level, ineffable.
Yet Neruda follows this with lines that restore a soft intimacy to his companionship with Kuthaka:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.
No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he’d keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.
His dog, then, exceeds him, supremely generous in its unconditional, untroubling companionship. Sometimes, it is enough, as Neruda understood, to have someone look at us to remind us we exist, and that someone, or something, cares that we do.
The next stanza shows Neruda’s appreciation for his dog’s difference from him, using concrete language and a specific memory to bring Kuthaka to life: “Ai, how many times have I envied his tail / as we walked together on the shores of the sea / in the lonely winter of Isla Negra / where the wintering birds filled the sky / and my hairy dog was jumping about / full of the voltage of the sea’s movement.” The dog is not simply better than him by virtue of its quiet, kind fulfilling of an emotional need; it also has something to be envied, a freedom, a lack of fear, a “joyful . . . shameless spirt,” as he puts it in the next stanza. If he was more like his dog, he knows, he might miss his humanity; all the same, if he could be freed of that chain, it would be an extraordinary existence. In this way, Neruda elevates his dog into something softly astonishing.
Still, Neruda made a pact with his canine: to always tell the truth, and to never go beyond the unspoken rules of their companionship. “There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,” he writes, returning to the directness of the opening lines, “and we don’t now and never did lie to each other. / So now he’s gone and I buried him, / and that’s all there is to it.” It is almost as if Neruda is trying, steadfastly, to avoid being accused of sentimentality—but such a reading would be to miss the deep love in the poem. Here is a man who not only memorialized his dog in a poem, but kept his gentle pact with it—and it says a lot that he made a promise to his dog at all. If the poem seems overlaid with the sheen of ice, with the glacial burn of star-fire, it is warm beneath.
You can tell that the poet misses his pet, misses this unique relationship in his life that—itself like a star—helped orient him on certain too-quiet nights when he was lost at sea. It is a marvelous demonstration of how to write about animals: by using specific memories, and not anthropomorphizing them to such a degree that they lose their essential dogginess or catness or mongooseness, but, instead, by recognizing their striking, sometimes sublime differences from us, alongside their similarities.
Like Kuthaka, my dogs’ companionship helped save me when I was younger, not from some physical threat, but from the subtler danger, slow but definite as the sea’s eroding touch, of being too lonely.
When Virginia Woolf came upon a diurnal moth one summer day flying from side to side of a windowpane, she did not expect it to spur her into writing. To be sure, animals had done so before. Years earlier, she had composed a fictive autobiography of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s cocker-spaniel, Flush, which was a cannily disguised novel of social critique, as much a canine bildungsroman as a human one. But the moth did not immediately pique her muse’s interest. It was unusual, perhaps, for flying in the daytime, and it seemed brimful with “zest,” but, if anything, she felt “pity” for the insect, as she imagined that the day was so filled with “energy” and “possibilities of pleasure” that “to have only a moth’s part of life”—to be but a moth—“appeared a hard fate,” even “pathetic.” The world was vast; the moth had only the windowpane, only a fraction of a world. It “was little or nothing but life” itself, a bit of dust and electricity charged into existence, with an infinitesimal map of the world. This, too, made it “marvelous” to her, a demonstration of the vitality of life, tiny or vast.Even before the epoch of cat videos and gifs, it can be hard to take animal writing seriously—but Woolf’s tone in her essay is unmistakably somber, without becoming macabre.
Still, she would have forgotten about it altogether had her eyes not caught it some moments later. The moth had lost its energy. She “watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure.” Soon, it fell onto its back. Woolf pulled out a pencil to help right him, then realized the moth was dying. Its death was like a battle against an invisible, invincible foe, as indisputably present as not. “The legs agitated themselves once more,” she wrote. “I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled . . . the power . . . indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular.” For some inexplicable reason, Death had become “opposed to the little hay-colored moth. . . . One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.”
Briefly, the moth, to her surprise, rights itself, a “superb . . . last protest.” She wondered at the quiet valiance of this finale effort, as “there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep.” It “moved one strangely,” she mused. Finally, the moth dies, and Woolf leaves us with a striking finish: “Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” Observing this battle with the quiet annihilating angel that shadows everything spurred her to write. The scene—mundane, yet somehow darkly mesmeric—seemed charged with meaning: that nothing can beat Death, yet even the tiniest, most forgettable things may fight it with a blind, life-affirming desire and power exceeding that of many humans.
In the essay, Woolf presents an image of a cool, indifferent universe, in which death simply happens, regardless of how painful or precipitous it might be; it is little more than a casual occurrence, like the hanging of a Union soldier in Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The moth is initially described as a “specimen” of a type, overlaying a cool clinical air to the piece. It is much like the vision of a glacial godless cosmos in her other work, perhaps most notably To the Lighthouse, “A Sketch of the Past,” or, even, The Waves, which, appositely, was originally set to be called “The Moths.” Indeed, as Woolf recounted later, the genesis for The Waves was an incident involving a moth, which she heard about in a letter from her sister Vanessa Bell; “a huge moth—half a foot, literally across” had flown against Bell’s window one night, the sound so loud that it prompted them to investigate if a “bat… or bird” was trying to get in, Bell wrote. In a letter back to Bell, Woolf said that “your story of the Moth so fascinates me that I am going to write a story about it”; in June of 1927, she found herself musing about a character in this novel who “might talk, or think, about the age of the earth . . . the death of humanity.” Moths and death were linked in Woolf’s mind, as though the insects were psychopomps of sorts, leading her, always, to a vision of that sunless land of the dead.
Like Neruda, Woolf does not let readers forget her subject is a creature. Even as she transforms the death of the moth into a kind of high drama, she doesn’t romanticize it. Woolf had feared her readers would fail to see the clever satire in Flush; on the eve of its publication, she wrote in her diary of her fears of critics calling it “‘charming,’ delicate, ladylike . . . I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler.” Even before the epoch of cat videos and gifs, it can be hard to take animal writing seriously—but Woolf’s tone in her essay is unmistakably somber, without becoming macabre. The moth’s struggle against death is a glimmer of Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime; for Burke, death, more than pain, was the “king of terrors.” It is hard not to admire the moth in its final moments, even as Woolf reminds us of its relative insignificance. Like Neruda, she earns these emotions by her measured voice and concrete language, which brings the scene to life.
Woolf and Neruda show how important animals are, even those we’re liable to forget—and they demonstrate, too, how all life, in the right hands, is worthy of a eulogy. Death, which means change more than dying, is always didactic; the deaths we ignore all around us, every day, say as much about us as the ones we focus on. (And it is impossible to focus on all the deaths around us.) The essay and poem reaffirm how different we, animals ourselves, are from other creatures, so much more prone as we are to shame and societal edicts; poignantly, Neruda and Woolf’s pieces also reveal how similar we are, especially when faced with that invisible foe, who is no enemy—Death is congenitally neutral—but who we struggle against, all the same, even when we imagine we’ve accepted her hand.
Their pieces affirm the complicated beauty and pain of companionships with life on this planet, pets or otherwise, and help us understand better our own insignificant but quietly vital place, like a fleck of star in the night’s fathomless seas.