The Victor Dog

By James Merrill 1926–1995 James Merrill

for Elizabeth Bishop

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez.
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.   
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.
He’s man’s—no—he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,   

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.   
Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s
“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit   
By lightning, and stays put. When he surmises   
Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes   
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,   
He doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.   
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,   
Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche   
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,   
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.   
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.   
Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.
His master’s voice rasps through the grooves’ bare groves.   
Obediently, in silence like the grave’s
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel   
Opera long thought lost—Il Cane Minore.
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars . . . Is there in Victor’s heart   
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.   
The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

James Merrill, “The Victor Dog” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Merrill. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: Poetry (September 1995).


This poem originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Poetry magazine

September 1995
 James  Merrill


The late James Merrill was recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation. Praised for his stylish elegance, moral sensibilities, and transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex meditations, Merrill’s work spans genres—including plays and prose—but the bulk of his artistic expression can be found in his poetry. Merrill’s talent was recognized immediately, though his earliest work was seen as . . .

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