Sunday, June 26, 2011

"All the Virtues of Man without his Vices": Lord Byron's Dog Boatswain, 1803-1808

Sunday, June 26, 2011
Susan reporting:

There's nothing like a devoted dog to bring out the best in people. Queen Victoria could be chilly and distant with her human subjects, but her dogs always received considerable affection. The poet George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron (1788-1824) was better known more his many lovers than for his faithfulness – except when it came to his dog Boatswain, left.

Byron loved animals. As a student at Cambridge, he famously rebelled against a rule forbidding pet dogs in lodgings by keeping a pet bear instead. Throughout his life, he kept an ever-changing menagerie of pets that included cats, horses, peacocks, a badger, a goat, geese, a heron, a fox, a parrot, and four monkeys.

But Boatswain was his favorite. A black and white Newfoundland (though in paintings he looks more like a modern border collie), Boatswain was equally devoted to Byron. When Boatswain was tragically attacked and bitten by a rabid dog, Byron insisted on nursing Boatswain himself, heedless of the risk, and grieved deeply at the dog's inevitable death. "Boatswain is dead!" he lamented to a friend. "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."

Though in dire financial straits, Byron erected a costly marble monument over Boatswain's grave on the grounds of Newstead Abbey, and drew the inscription from his poem 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 
   Who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
   And died at Newstead Nov. 18 1808

It was Byron's great desire to be buried with Boatswain, and he expressed that wish in his will. But by the time he died, Newstead had been sold to another owner, who did not wish his home to become the final resting place of the famed poet, nor have it overrun with his grieving admirers. Byron was instead buried in his family's vault in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall. One hopes that he and Boatswain are finally joined in spirit, if not in fact.

The romantic painting, right, by Ford Madox Brown was completed long after the deaths of both Byron and Boatswain. Inspired by Byron's semi-autobiographical poem The Dream (1816), it shows Byron with his first lover, Mary Chaworth. While she represents lost love and thwarted dreams, it's ever-faithful Boatswain who stands for loyalty.

Above: Lord Byron's Dog Boatswain (1803-1808) by Clifton Tomson, 1808
Below: Byron's Dream by Ford Madox Brown, 1874


Lauren R said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this, thank you for posting. I don't know why but I'm fascinated by the dogs of history...:-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I have read about Boatswain but never knew there was a picture of him. Susan E

Louise Partain said...

Pretty dog! Such devotion that even with rabies he wouldn't attack. Did Byron have a death wish that he would nurse a rabid dog? Why didn't he just put Boatswain out of his suffering?

I am sorry folks, but there were no shots for rabies victims back then and no hope of recovery for a rabid animal. Pretty selfish of the poet if you ask me.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lauren R & Susan E, you're welcome. I've always found that pets are one of those little ways that people of the past seem very much like people of today.

Louise, Byron WAS a remarkably selfish (and self-centered) man, no matter his talent and charm. That said, I can understand his anguish. Putting a beloved pet out of its misery is a most difficult thing to do.

Louise Partain said...

Someone poisoned my cat when I was young and I had to watch him die. Then I was small and my father sat with me and we cried together. I don't think I could put a beloved pet through such suffering if I knew the outcome was preordained.

Eric Greene said...

A beautifully written tale of a grown man's enduring love for his dog. There are a few accounts of people wanting to be buried alongside a favorite animal companion. In this case, the denial of Byron's wish didn't seem to be based on notions of desecration, but rather on traffic. I wonder if there are many others who had been buried with their pets. By any chance, would you have a link to a copy of Byron's will? Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story ! What a man !

Anonymous said...

Epitaph to Byron : Your are not alone !

No matter where you may stay!
For we believe to know you:
Oh! Though you part from day,
No heart will ever leave you.
We scarcely mourn you even,
We sing in envy of your fate:
To you in days dark and days of heaven,
were given song and courage, true and great.

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