Lord Byron's Poetic Goodbye to His Best Friend

Trevor Rickard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Trevor Rickard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Trevor Rickard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

A lot of people hoped to be the love of Lord Byron’s life—for instance, Lady Caroline Lamb, who was infamously obsessed with the unattainable poet. But the love of Byron’s life had already come and gone by the time the poet was just 20: a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain.

From the time Boatswain entered the Byron household in 1803, the poet and the pup were inseparable, getting into all kinds of mischief. It's said that Byron enjoyed pitching himself out of watercrafts just to see if Boatswain would come to his rescue. (He always did.) Their escapades were even depicted in a children’s book called Memoires d’un Caniche.

Sadly, Byron’s beloved developed rabies after being bitten by an infected dog. Byron stayed with Boatswain until the end, wiping the foam and saliva from his mouth with bare hands. It’s been suggested that by taking such a risk, Byron was unaware “of the nature of the malady,” but modern Byron scholars believe he was extremely well-versed in dogs and was simply in denial about the fact that his best friend was not long for this world. Boatswain died on November 10, 1808.

"Boatswain is dead! he expired in a state of madness on the 10th, 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," Byron wrote in a letter. The poet honored Boatswain by erecting a large monument on the grounds of Newstead Abbey, his family estate. The tomb is engraved with a poem written by Byron and friend John Cam Hobhouse. (Full text below.)

TrevorRickard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Byron was still in mourning three years later when he wrote up his will. In it, he requested a final resting place alongside Boatswain, “without any burial service whatsoever, or any inscription save my name and age.” When Byron died in 1826, however, his wishes went unheeded. After being refused at Westminster Abbey, George Gordon Byron was buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall. Boatswain, presumably, is still waiting for his master.

Here’s “Epitaph to a Dog”:

Near this spot Are deposited the RemainsOf oneWho possessed BeautyWithout Vanity,Strength without Insolence,Courage without Ferocity,And all the Virtues of ManWithout his Vices.The Price, which would be unmeaning flatteryIf inscribed over Human Ashes, Is but a just tribute to the Memory of “Boatswain,” a Dog Who was born at Newfoundland, May, 1803, And died in Newstead Abbey, Nov. 18, 1808. When some proud son of man returns to earth,Unknown by glory, but upheld by birth,The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,And stories urns record that rests below.When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,Not what he was, but what he should have been.But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,The first to welcome, foremost to defend,Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth,Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth —While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power —Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,Degraded mass of animated dust!Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit!By nature vile, ennoble but by name,Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;I never knew but one — and here he lies.