02/03/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2013

The Best Animal Poetry

Working from home with a cat some mornings, I'm often reminded of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," a 1200-line meditation that the poet wrote while institutionalized. Smart's poem is, on the surface, a deliberate consideration of what makes his cat Jeoffry, well, Jeoffry, but it's far more remarkable for what it tells us about Smart.

I've collected a few animal poems here that speak to the essence of an animal, but also illuminate the human condition. In order, they address our faith, doubt, passion and dread. In the case of "Jubilate Agno," the poem doesn't make much of a case for Smart's sanity, but it is pious, oddly glorious and certainly touching. Here's an excerpt:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
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.

That last line segues naturally to William Blake, who famously captured the darker side of cats in his poem "The Tyger" from Songs of Innocence and Experience. In sharp contrast to the nursery rhyme quality of the poem's innocent companion, "The Lamb," the poem's aggressive meter drives forward like a blacksmith's hammer.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

My favorite animal poem is probably D.H. Lawrence's classic "The Elephant is Slow to Mate." It captures the heart of the beasts, and does so with what seems to be intense compassion, describing how they

... sleep in massive silence, and wake
together, without a word.

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,

This being Lawrence, you shouldn't be surprised that the elephants culminate (eventually) their passions:

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood

moves as the moon-tides, near, more near
till they touch in flood.

As with Lawrence, Ted Hughes moves far beyond physical description in his poem "Pike." Speaking about the poem, he told the Poetry Archive: "I captured not just a pike, I captured the whole pond including the monsters I never even hooked." The poem starts with a simple portrait:

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.

but expands to encompass so much more. For Hughes, the fish becomes

The dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

You can (and should!) read more of Hughes' outstanding animal poetry here. And feel free to add your own favorite animal poems in the comments section below.