Quiet as a mouse. Blind as a bat. Crazy as a fox. It seems there is no end to the simile-making possibilities of animals. Ever-present in poetry, animals are invoked almost as frequently as the beloved, and in many cases are even used to describe the beloved. Early examples are the stallions, doves, and deer in the love poetry of the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs and the anthropomorphized swans and goats in ancient Greek mythology.
There is also a long tradition of poems addressed to pets, either celebrating their deeds or mourning their loss. Perhaps one of the most well known verses addressed to a pet comes from Christopher Smart's eighteenth century "Jublilate Agno." Written in a religious fervor, the poem begins with a litany of animals, and contains an inimitable section addressed to his cat, Jeoffry, which includes the lines:
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
The wild and feral nature of animals is often marveled by poets, such as Mary Oliver's detailed portraits, Rainer Maria Rilke's trips to the zoo, and Marianne Moore's self-described "menagerie." Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell traded poems depicting the animals and the awkward intrusion of humans, including Bishop's "The Moose," "The Armadillo," and Lowell's "Skunk Hour."
There are poems of mythical creatures and fantastical beasts, both terrifying and majestic, and even verses relating the tragic results of coupling between humans and animals. The Greek myth of Leda and the Swan has been retold by many poets, including W. B.Yeats, who asks: "And how can body, laid in that white rush, / But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?" In "The Sheep Child," James Dickey tells the story of a creature born of a human and sheep pairing, a tale that is both darkly comical as well as heartbreaking.
Ultimately, animals offer poets a mirror through which to explore themselves, an unwitting foil used to understand what it means to be human. Sometimes the comparison ultimately reveals a dissatisfaction with humanity, as in "Meditatio" by Ezra Pound and "Dog Poem" by Philip Levine, which concludes with his curse upon the dogs of the world:
...give them three kids
in the public schools, hemorrhoids,
a tiny fading hope to rise above
the power of unleashed, famished animals
and postmasters, give them two big feet
and shoes that don’t fit, and dull work
five days a week. Give them my life.
In other cases, the animal becomes a metaphor to venerate humanity, or more specifically, the poet, as in "The Albatross" by Charles Baudelaire. The poem follows a majestic bird after it is captured for fun by the crew of a ship, and describes its awkward appearance on board and its humiliation by the deck hands. The final stanza, here translated by Richard Howard, declares:
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds
Riding the storm above the marksman's range;
Exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,
He cannot walk because of his great wings.
Just a few of the countless poems about animals include:
"1575 (The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings—" by Emily Dickinson
"Address to the Beasts" by W. H. Auden
"Bat" by X. J. Kennedy
"Rat Riddles" by Carl Sandburg
"Feel Like a Bird" by May Swenson
"The Wood-Weasel" by Marianne Moore
"The Moose" by Elizabeth Bishop
"The Armadillo" by Elizabeth Bishop
"Giant Toad" by Elizabeth Bishop
"The Tyger" by William Blake
"Talking to Dogs" by W. H. Auden
"Atlantis" by Mark Doty
"The Albatross" by Charles Baudelaire
"Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat" by Thomas Gray
"Last words to a Dumb Friend" by Thomas Hardy
"Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats
"Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell
"The Paper Nautilus" by Marianne Moore
"Ode to the Cat" by Pablo Neruda
"A Dog Has Died" by Pablo Neruda
"Elephant" by Pablo Neruda
"Meditatio" by Ezra Pound
"Was Not the Lost Dauphin" by Robert Penn Warren
"Jubilate Agno" by Christopher Smart
"Moment" by Daniel Berrigan
"Read to the Animals or Orpheus at the SPCA" by Irving Feldman
"Snake" by Theodore Roethke
"The Fly" by William Blake
"Splinter" by Carl Sandburg
"The Grasshopper" by Conrad Aiken
"r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" by E. E. Cummings
"Trout" by Seamus Heaney
"The Shark" by John Ciardi
"Alligator Poem" by Mary Oliver
"Leda and the Swan" by W.B. Yeats