Old Tiney. Gone, but not Forgotten.

By Robert Pinsky on 4.24.09

Cowper’s sweet, eerie poem about his pet rabbit—and about life in general—might just as well have gone into my section of “Love Poems,” or into “Odes, Complaints, and Celebrations” (being all three) or “Stories.” Like many excellent works, this poem in ballad stanza (its ultimate category within the book Essential Pleasures) straddles many categories.

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Here lies, whom hound did ne’er pursue,
     Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne’er tainted morning dew,
     Nor ear heard huntsman’s hallo’,

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
     Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confined,
     Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
     His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
     And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
     And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
     With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
     On pippins’ russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
     Sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
     Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
     And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
     For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
     Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
     He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
     And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor’s sake,
     For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
     And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
     He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
     Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more aged, feels the shocks
     From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
     Must soon partake his grave.

And Cowper includes all those modes within a straightforward, nearly sober, set of statements demonstrating how subtle and charming plainness can be. More than once, a stanza ends with a piece of observation so plain it resembles a punch line: “And when he could, would bite”; “And swing his rump around.”

The poem seems to me a psychologically acute, as well as candid, account of what it can be like to have a pet: “I kept him for his humor’s sake,” says Cowper who had need of a creature that could “force me to a smile.” As Cowper’s “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity” (page 343 of Essential Pleasures) indicates, the poet had experienced terrible inward ordeals.

The solemnity with which Cowper describes “Old Tiney, surliest of his kind” and “gentler Puss” seems to me not ironic or condescending, but profoundly humble. The poem, for me, exudes a quality of charitable grace.

topics: Essential Pleasures