January 19 1815: Lord Byron’s Dogs

On January 19 1815, Lord Byron answers a query from Thomas Moore that leads to a discussion of dogs. Moore explains:

I had just been reading Mr. Southey’s fine poem of “Roderick;” and with reference to an incident in it, had put the following question to Lord Byron:—”I should like to know from you, who are one of the philocynic sect, whether it is probable, that any dog (out of a melodrame) could recognise a master, whom neither his own mother or mistress was able to find out. I don’t care about Ulysses’s dog, &c.—all I want is to know from you (who are renowned as ‘friend of the dog, companion of the bear’) whether such a thing is probable.”

Byron responds by recollecting that he once had a dog that, in his own words, was “(half a wolf by the she side) that doted on me at ten years old, and very nearly ate me at twenty.” The dog was called Lyon. Byron had Clifton Tomson paint a portrait of Lyon, the Wolf Dog, which is reproduced below.

One of the crimes of Lyon, the Wolf Dog was that he pestered Byron’s favourite dog Boatswain, a Newfoundlander. In 1803, Bryon also had Clifton Tomson paint a portrait of  Boatswain.


As Byron writes, in his letter to Moore, Boatswain was “the dearest and, alas! the maddest of dogs”. He was mad because he died of rabies in 1808. Byron had him buried in Newstead Abbey, and wrote a poem that was engraved on a monument for Boatswain.

Epitaph to a Dog

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
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. 18th, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who 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 labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,
Deny’d 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,
Debas’d 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 tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who behold perchance 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

For more information about the dogs in Byron’s  life, see Byron and his dogs – in pictures by the Guardian. The images above are taken from this article. There is also a fine article by Susan Holloway Scott “All the Virtues of Man without his Vices”: Lord Byron’s Dog in the Two Nerdy History Girls blog.


Byron’s letter to Thomas Moore is reproduced below.

As bonus, he makes fun of the name of one of Robert Southey’s heroine, who has a name that is also a female body part. Byron writes: “Roderick Random says, profane the chaste mysteries of Hymen’ —damn the word, I had nearly spelt it with a small h.”  Byron was Seinfeld before Seinfeld.

January 19. 1815.

Egad! I don’t think he is ‘down;’ and my prophecy—like most auguries, sacred and profane—is not annulled, but inverted.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
To your question about the ‘dog’ —Umph!—my ‘mother,’ I won’t say any thing against—that is, about her: but how long a ‘mistress’ or friend may recollect paramours or competitors (lust and thirst being the two great and only bonds between the amatory or the amicable) I can’t say,—or, rather, you know, as well as I could tell you. But as for canine recollections, as far as I could judge by a cur of mine own, (always bating Boatswain, the dearest and, alas! the maddest of dogs,) I had one (half a wolf by the she side) that doted on me at ten years old, and very nearly ate me at twenty. When I thought he was going to enact Argus, he bit away the backside of my breeches, and never would consent to any kind of recognition, in despite of all kinds of bones which I offered him. So, let Southey blush and Homer too, as far as I can decide upon quadruped memories.

I humbly take it, the mother knows the son that pays her jointure—a mistress her mate, till he * * and refuses salary—a friend his fellow, till he loses cash and character—and a dog his master, till he changes him. So, you want to know about milady and me? But let me not, as Roderick Random says, ‘profane the chaste mysteries of Hymen’—damn the word, I had nearly spelt it with a small h. I like Bell as well as you do (or did, you villain!) Bessy—and that is (or was) saying a great deal.

Address your next to Seaham, Stockton-on-Tees, where we are going on Saturday (a bore, by the way,) to see father-in-law, Sir Jacob, and my lady’s lady-mother. Write—and write more at length— both to the public and yours ever most affectionately,

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