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Pablo Neruda

A Dog Has Died

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Un perro ha muerto” (English title: “A Dog Has Died”) is a free verse poem originally written in Spanish by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda upon the death of his dog. The poem was among the last Neruda wrote before his death in 1973, and was published posthumously in the volume Jardin del invierno (“Winter Garden”) in 1974. The overall style and tone of the poem is in line with Neruda’s later work, when the Nobel-Prize winning surrealist and political poet had tempered his style towards a more conversational tone and quotidian subject matter.

“A Dog Has Died” deals with the speaker’s grief over the lost pet, and honors the pet’s life via favorable comparison of the animal’s indomitable personality and joie-de-vivre to the master’s own dour, somewhat hopeless existence. As a commemoration of a dead companion, the poem is an elegy—a genre of poetry composed to lament and pay tribute to the dead.

Neruda’s choice to eulogize a dead animal might appear strange—as a witness to the Spanish Civil War and a prominent Chilean diplomat, Neruda knew many heroic individuals (see Contextual Analysis), but did not write elegies for them. However, this purposeful omission of human achievement helps the reader to interpret the poem. Like Neruda’s other famous poems in honor of daily life and objects (see Odes to Common Things in Further Reading), this poem has deep respect for the simple, honest life of an animal, calling human morality into question like much of Neruda’s political poetry.

Written when the poet understood his own death to be imminent, the poem can also be read metonymically. Metonymy is a literary device in which the name or description of one object is replaced by that of another closely linked object. In this case, the elegiac tone could well be the poet’s projected mourning of himself, and quiet sense of regret over a life perhaps not lived to its absolute fullest.

Poet Biography

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Parral, Chile. A Chilean diplomat and poet awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, Neruda was one of the most prominent Latin American poets of the 20th century. His second book of poems, Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song, is the best-selling book of poetry in Spanish.

Neruda’s mother died shortly after his birth, at which time the family moved to the town of Temuco, where his father remarried. Neruda flourished as a poet early in life. By age 16, he had adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda, likely as a response to his father’s discouragement of his writing. By 1923, Neruda had published his first work, Book of Twilights. Twenty Love Poems, which followed shortly thereafter, was critically acclaimed but controversial for its high degree of eroticism.

In 1926, out of financial necessity, Neruda took a diplomatic position as an honorary consul stationed in South Asia. Neruda identified strongly with South Asian peoples, whom he saw as downtrodden by colonial rule. He wrote prolifically during this period, releasing several collections and transitioning from an earlier symbolist and lyrical style to a more densely experimental and surrealistic framework. In 1932, Neruda was sent as consul to Madrid, Spain, where, he supported communism, which was favored by the literary community. In 1936 the political unrest brewing throughout Spain erupted in the Spanish Civil War. Neruda’s poetic style shifted again, towards a more direct and easily interpretable diction honoring Latin American history, culture, and sovereignty. Over the course of the war, Neruda travelled around Spain and surrounding countries, gathering support for the Spanish Republicans.

In 1930, Neruda married Marijke Vogelzang, who gave birth to their daughter Malva Reyes in 1935. After he and Marijke divorced, he married Delia del Carril. In 1943, at age nine, Malva died of tuberculosis.

After a short-lived stint as a Senator and official member of the Communist party, in 1948 Neruda was exiled from Chile for writing an open letter denouncing Present Gabriel González Videla’s increasingly right-wing policies. In 1952, after the political situation had cooled, Neruda returned to Chile and built a house on the small sea-facing commune of Isla Negra. Now quite wealthy, Neruda traveled extensively and continued to compose poetry. Neruda was appointed the Chilean ambassador to France in 1969, and received the Nobel Prize in 1970. He died of cancer in 1973.

Poem Text

Neruda, Pablo. “A Dog Has Died.” Translated by Alfred Yankauer. Feb 1999. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“A Dog has Died” commences with a three-line stanza stating the poem’s core plot: The speaker’s dog has died and been buried “in the garden / next to a rusted old machine” (Lines 2-3).

In the second stanza, the speaker notes that one day he will “join him right there” (Line 4) in the garden. He states that though he does not believe in heaven, he does believe in “a heaven I’ll never enter […] a heaven for all dogdom” (Line 11) where his dog waits for his arrival.

The third stanza describes the speaker’s relationship with his dog: The animal was a “companion” (Line 15), but not an equal or a subordinate one. Rather, the dog’s friendship was similar to the friendship of a “star, aloof, / with no more intimacy than was called for” (Lines 19-20). He notes that unlike other dogs, his dog never climbs on his clothes or humps his knee.

The fourth stanza explores the speaker’s understanding of the dog’s gaze. This gaze expresses the dog’s annoyance at wasting his time on his owner, since the dog is such a much purer being.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker describes watching the dog play in the surf of Isla Negra with envy. While the dog is carefree and full of joy, the speaker himself cannot access this uncomplicated joy. The sixth stanza elaborates that dogs feel happiness without self-consciousness or guilt, “as only dogs know how to be happy / with only the autonomy / of their shameless spirit” (Lines 48-49).

The seventh and eighth stanzas form two couplets. The seventh stanza rues that there is no way to say goodbye to the dog, because the speaker and the dog have never lied to one another. In the eighth, the speaker goes back to the matter-of-factness of the first stanza, averring once more that his dog is dead and he has buried him, “and that’s all there is to it” (Line 53).

Related Titles

By Pablo Neruda

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