I know of few more touching epitaphs than these lines of Pope’s on his dog Bounce, to whom he was deeply attached and whom he had sent to the country two years before to the care of his close friend Lord Orrery. The lines were written on his hearing of Bounce’s death in April 1744. On the surface they are a jeu d’esprit and a compliment to Lord Orrery. They are in fact a witty adaptation of a couplet from Chaucer’s Knights Tale. But the wit is a kind of ironic courage in the face of grief, for Pope not only loved Bounce but was himself dying and knew it. With the courage and spirit habitual to him he met his own end with the same sort of wit. A few days before he died, a friend called on him just after the doctor had been telling him that he was glad to find that “he breathed much easier; that his pulse was very good and several other encouraging things”. “Here am I,” said Pope, “dying of a hundred good symptoms!” Bounce was a Great Dane bitch and Pope was tiny and frail. Lord Lyttleton, the friend just mentioned, talked in a letter written eight years earlier of coming to see Pope “in most outrageous spirits, and overturn you like Bounce, when you let her loose after a regimen of physic and confinement”. Bounce may have overturned her master at times, but she is also recorded as protecting him against possible physical violence. His half-sister Mrs Rockett confided to Joseph Spence:
My brother does not seem to know what fear is. When some of the people that he had put into his Dunciad were so much enraged against him and threatened him so highly, he loved to walk alone, and particularly often to Mr Fortescues at Richmond [about two miles away]. Only he would take Bounce [a great faithful Danish dog of Mr Popes.—SPENCE’S NOTE] with him, and for some time carried pistols in his pocket. He used to say to us, when we talked to him about it that “with pistols the least man in England was above a match for the largest”.
This of course is not a boast of the poet’s proficiency with pistols but a sly reference to the relative size of the targets involved. But with great Bounce beside him he probably felt safer than with his pistols. Bounce’s reply to her master’s gentle reproach is therefore in character, and it seems that Pope himself had written an epistle from Bounce to his friend Mrs Howard’s dog, Fop, a few years earlier, though the verses have usually been attributed to Swift. Perhaps the thought of meeting Bounce in the next world was in Pope’s mind in his last months of life. Spence records a curious conversation in January 1744:
SPENCE: I used to carry it too far; I thought they dogs had reason as well as we.
POPE: So they have, to be sure. All our disputes about that are only a dispute about words. Man has reason enough only to know what is necessary for him to know, and dogs have just that too.
SPENCE: But then they must have souls too, as unperishable as ours. And as our arguments from the actions of our own souls must hold equally for them, if they have any such things as ideas or thoughts raised within them, where would be the harm in allowing them immortality too?
POPE: None at all.
When this conversation took place, Bounce, as far as Pope knew, was alive and well with Lord Orrery, but he may have had another of his many dogs in mind. This brings me to an embarrassment: the fact that after I had written Bounce’s reply I learned from the scholars in such things that Pope almost certainly had at least four dogs called Bounce and that the one to whom he addressed the epitaph was a male and therefore could not have been the Great Dane of earlier times. I wish I had not known this, but as I do I shall say it does not matter, that Pope, whose mind did wander a little in his last illness, was able to include the later and the earlier Bounce in one farewell. This couplet may very well have been the last poem he wrote. We know of nothing else after it.
Pope To Bounce
Ah Bounce! ah gentle Beast! why wouldst thou dye,
When thou had’st meat enough and Orrery?
Bounce To Pope
Master, by Styx!—which is the poets’ oath,
And the dread bourne of dogs and poets both—
Dear Master, destined soon my fate to share,
‘Twas not for want of meat or love, I swear,
Bounce left thee early for the Stygian shore:
I went (’twas all I could) to be before;
To wait, as oft in life, when thou wouldst roam,
I watched to have thy greeting coming home.
So here I prick my ears and strain to mark
Thy slight form coming after through the dark,
And leap to meet thee; with my deep bark drown
Thy: “Bounce! why Bounce, old friend! nay, down, Bounce, down!”
Then, master, shall I turn and, at thy side,
Pace till we reach the river’s foetid tide.
The monstrous shapes and terrors of the way
Shall flee, themselves in terror; at my bay;
Gorgons, chimaeras, hydras at my growl
Scatter, and harpies prove pacific fowl;
Charon shall give prompt passage; what is more,
Seem civil till we reach the farther shore;
And last—for this is dog’s work—at the Gate
Where the three-headed Cerberus lies in wait,
Thou shalt not need or lyre or hydromel
To mollify the gruesome Hound of Hell
But may’st pass through unscath’d: he will not mind
Seeing with thee, a female of his kind.
There must I leave thee; there to feel thy hand
Bestow a final pat, great Bounce shall stand,
Knowing, alas, that I may do no more
Than gaze and grieve and, while I can, adore.
Watching thy cheerful, firm, unhurried tread
Down that long road declining to the dead,
And think, to see that dwindling shade depart:
“So small a master, but how great a heart!”