Poem Guide

James Merrill: “The Victor Dog”

The poet inhabits a dog and listens to his master’s voice.

James Merrill wrote “The Victor Dog” in the fall of 1969, in Nambé Pueblo, New Mexico, outside Santa Fe. There he had rented an adobe cottage for some months to be close to a painter-friend, David McIntosh. The romance Merrill attempted to kindle with McIntosh kept faltering back into friendship; though McIntosh served as a companion and guide to the geology and lore of the Southwest, his affections lay elsewhere. Merrill, who once, exaggerating a bit, claimed never to have spent a night alone (he was never without a partner, if not an entourage), found himself disappointed in love again, soon after a previous relationship had left him heartbroken. Alone with an extravagantly starry sky in the atmospheric acuteness of an elevation of 6,000 feet, Merrill fell back on the wisdom of his 43 years. He wrote wittily, poignantly, and resignedly about the philosophical consolation of art, using the RCA Corporation logo of a dog looking confusedly at a phonograph as a comical, metaphysical conceit. This poem’s central image visualizes the artist’s role in the modern world and enacts and comments on musical performance.

The world-renowned icon of the RCA Victor dog, with its label, “His Master’s Voice,” has a backstory of its own. British, German, and Japanese corporations have trademarked the image over the decades since its first incarnation as an 1899 oil painting by Francis Barraud, a Frenchman living in England. Nipper, the original dog in the painting, was a Jack Russell mix born in Bristol. Barraud reminisced: “It is difficult to say how the idea came to me beyond that fact that it suddenly occurred to me that to have my dog listening to the phonograph, with an intelligent and rather puzzled expression, and call it ‘His Master’s Voice’ would make an excellent subject. We had a phonograph and I often noticed how puzzled he was to make out where the voice came from. It certainly was the happiest thought I ever had.”

Ironically, Barraud had a difficult time selling the image at first: he was told that people wouldn’t understand what the dog was doing, because, according to the Edison Bell Company, “Dogs don’t listen to phonographs.” But this very quality is probably what struck Merrill: the incongruity of a dog’s listening to a phonograph prompts the imagination to fill in the logical gap between the image and ordinary experience, something that metaphysical poems such as this one traditionally do. At any rate, the “intelligent and rather puzzled expression” the unnatural contraption caused really ought to be intelligible to anyone confronting the cosmos in a technological age—it’s easy to see ourselves in the bemused dog. Above all, there is humor in the image, mixed with an appeal to the child in us. And the image, like Merrill’s poem, is meant first and foremost to entertain.

Merrill shares this lightness with his idol Elizabeth Bishop, who also courts and deflects pathos in poems such as “Filling Station” and “The Man-Moth.” In fact, Bishop conceived of “The Man-Moth” after seeing the word—a misprint for “mammoth”—in a newspaper. Like the Victor dog, the figure of the Man-Moth, who plays with his own teardrop like a magician’s toy, is a comically lowbrow stand-in for the artist in the modern world. Unlike the Man-Moth, though, the Victor dog is a figure of enchantment rather than mournfulness, his playfulness embodied by the language of the poem, capering with allusions and puns.

Having dedicated the poem to Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill starts in the key of B:

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.

Much is encoded in that first line: from the 20th-century jazz cornetist to the early baroque choral composer and back to a 20th-century powerhouse of experimental composed music, each name is an emblem for a wide range of musical expression. In the second stanza, “acid rock” is rhymed with the modern Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch to underscore that genres as seemingly opposed as heavy rock and classical orchestra are connected through the dog. All this serves to further the point that the dog is pure obedience; he does not exercise “taste.” Paradoxically, the artist’s “work” is to actively listen but be passive in his judgments toward the world. The balanced, rhyming abba iambic pentameter quatrains enact the seesaw between work and play, action and passivity, as surely as the tick-tock of a metronome.

Work and play is the dominant binary, but the other kind of doubling Merrill engages in happens at the level of the word, with the relentless punning that runs through the poem. To pun is to make deliberate use of a word’s over- and undertones, exploiting its full “resonance,” to borrow a metaphor from acoustics. To “build a church upon our acid rock” puns both on Christ’s anointing of St. Peter and the inherent instability of acid rock landscapes. Then he puns on “man’s best friend” with a reference to “Der Leiermann,” the last piece in Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, based on a poem by Wilhelm Müller that addresses a cold, hungry organ grinder whose music falls on deaf ears and growling street dogs, to which the Victor dog provides a contrasting nobility.

Was Merrill suggesting, along with the alertness and receptivity of the dog, that one must have a nose for hunting allusions? Some readers object to the demand that they rummage outside the poem—in dictionaries or encyclopedias—to catch the full range of meaning, but Merrill suggests that’s not entirely necessary, at least at a first reading: “I fancy he rather smells / Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s / ”Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.” That is, the sheer epicurean pleasure of hearing the notes—in this case, the rhythm and pictures of words such as lemon-gold arpeggios or the melodious syllables of French—gratifies the senses, which is where the real excitement is. The “full range of meaning” (as if that were something we could ever truly arrive at!) can wait.

For several stanzas, the poem serves as a playlist with corresponding metaphors. Schumann’s “tall willow hit / By lightning” alludes to the thunderous chords that begin and end his Piano Concerto Op. 54; Bach’s “eternal boxwood mazes,” besides punning on his name, captures the labyrinthine structure of baroque canons and fugues, and “calypso” is figured as kind of intoxicant, appropriate to festivities. The pun on “adamant needles” refers not only to the record needle but “thorns also and thistles” God promises to Adam after the Fall. The range of experience is there: happiness, love, suffering, and death. The dog continues to be stoic, facing all situations with the same equanimity: “he was taught as a puppy not to flinch.” Notice how quickly—almost in passing—Merrill suggests that the dog’s attentive, sympathetic observation of suffering (Lear’s existential anguish, love’s treachery, murder, war) might inspire progress in “nature”: “Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.”

But wisdom is dispensed fleetingly in the poem’s comic universe. The poem’s final image of a “cast of stars” is adapted from the Paradiso, the climax of Dante’s Divine Comedy. If the classic definition of comedy is a story with a happy ending, Merrill suggests that something quite grand—victory, even—awaits the artist-dog. At the volta, after the seventh stanza, “the last chord fades,” and the Victor dog sleeps on the “still-warm” gramophone as on a rug before a hearth, dreaming of starring in his own (apocryphal) opera named after a small constellation (Il Cane Minore, or Canis Minor in Latin, meaning ”lesser dog”). This is a convenient segue to the image of the starry cosmos. Just as the phonograph spindle “gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,” in Dante’s universe, a “music of the spheres” arises from the sun, moon, and planets’ harmonization. The spindle, like Earth’s axis, runs up to the record needle’s diamond, like the pole star. And the planets’ orbits  are akin to the grooves in the record. Dante’s final image lies behind Merrill’s:

But now my will and my desire, like
wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the
other stars.

Redeeming the Leiermann, the Victor dog, passive listener and dreamer, turns the derogatory “dog’s life” into a triumph with a “cast of stars.” But when Merrill goes on to ask, “Is there in Victor’s heart / No honey for the vanquished? Art is art,” we may wonder if he is mocking Victor a little bit. After all, Il Cane Minore is a dream, the master never shows up, and “art is art” has a flat ring to it—as if the magician, once he had pulled off his trick and received his applause, revealed its workings with a shrug. But he rhymes art with heart, and he introduces the notion of us—“the life it asks of us” in that final line. With lightning speed, Merrill suggests victory, the possibility of its hollowness, and indifference to that possibility. The poem does, indeed, end with a shrug—and a wink: Art is just art, but isn’t it fun, and aren’t we good at it, and aren’t we glad that we’re in it together?

There may be one more buried allusion here and that is to another famous dog in English literature. It is Alexander Pope’s “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness:”

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

Pope sent this to the Prince of Wales with a puppy from his dog Bounce’s litter. One thinks of James Merrill in this season of frustrated love, asking himself, tongue-in-cheek, “whose dog are you?” and then writing his poem for his adored mentor, Elizabeth, affirming their shared vocation.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2015

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

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