Below, you’ll find a full analysis of the poem “Oddjob, A Bull Terrier” by Derek Walcott, including form, structure, language, themes, context, attitudes, example questions, and more!
I don’t know if it’s because my own little old dog just passed away or whether it’s just a powerful poem in general, but I really feel a deep connection to the ideas in this one. Walcott writes a simultaneous commemoration of his dog Oddjob, and a reflection on the feelings of grief, loss, and sorrow in general — concluding that these feelings are in fact blessings because they mirror the extreme love that we feel for those who mean the most to us.
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Oddjob, A Bull Terrier
“You prepare for one sorrow,
but another comes.
It is not like the weather, …”
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)
Seaward — towards the sea.
To muse — to think deeply and philosophically about something.
Oleanders — poisonous plants, a type of shrub or small tree which often displays bright pink flowers.
Whimper — a sad cry, as if in pain or hurt.
Blest — an old-fashioned spelling of ‘blessed’.
STORY / SUMMARY
Stanza 1: You prepare yourself for coping with something sad, but then a different sad thing happens instead. It’s not like the weather, you can’t prepare for it, you’re just unready. Your companion, the woman, the friend next to you, the child at your side, and the dog — we feel strongly for them, we look out to sea and think of them and about how it will rain, how a sad day will come when they are no longer around. We shall get ready for the time when it rains when the sad separation happens; the way that the sun affects the darkening oleander plants in the sea-garden, the way the golden color fades from the palm trees, the flecks of rain on your skin — you do not connect all of these things with the dog’s whimper, thunder isn’t frightening, you are ready; the thing that follows you around at your feet (the dog) is trying to tell you that silence is everything, it is deeper than readiness, it is as deep as the sea, like the earth, as love.
Stanza 2: The silence is stronger than thunder, we are speechless and deep as the animals who never speak of love as we do, except this feeling becomes unexplainable, we cannot express it with words and instead it must be said in a whimper, in tears, in the rain that appears in our eyes, not saying the name of the loved thing, the silence of the dead, the silence of the deepest buried love is the one true, deep silence and whether we are silent in this way for a child, a woman, or a friend, this silence represents one deep love, it is the same feeling regardless of the reason we express it and it is blessed, the deepest kind of silence is the one we experience after the loss of something we love, this kind of silence is blessed, it is blessed.
The speaker of this poem takes on a kind of omniscient perspective, he is not speaking specifically about a single person or moment, but instead, about the human condition — the way in which we grieve for the things we loved that are now lost, be they friends, women, children or pets.
He observes that sometimes emotions cannot be explained with words, instead, they are expressed through gestures such as tears and through a kind of deep, holy, spiritual silence that shows the utmost respect and love for the thing that has been lost. This wider perspective contrasts with the title of the poem: ‘Oddjob, A Bull Terrier’ which names a specific pet that must have belonged to Walcott at a certain point in his life. We can then read this poem as a way to understand the grieving process for the loss of a loved one, but also as a personal remembrance of Walcott’s lost companion.
Visual image — “we look seaward and muse” — this line creates a visual image of the poet sitting and looking out to sea, lost in contemplative thought and his own memories and reflections of his dog.
– “the sunlight altering/the darkening oleanders/ in the sea-garden, / the gold going out of the palms.” — these tumbling visual images capture the beauty of the Caribbean landscape, but also present images of transition and change — the way in which the “gold” color leaves the palms as the season’s progress or the way in which “sunlight” affects the oleander bushes. This reminds us that death is a natural process and that grief is a natural outcome of death, it is normal and even cathartically important to feel sadness when faced with loss.
Alternatively, the images do also create a kind of ominous, portentous tone that perhaps foreshadows with a sense of foreboding the future losses and grief that the speaker will have to endure, as ‘oleanders’ are a poisonous plant and the “gold” color leaving the palms to suggest the happiness and richness of life fading with the advent of death. Furthermore, it may be a poetic allusion to Robert Frost’s famous poem on loss “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, which also uses an extended metaphor of the seasons to sadly suggest that nothing brilliant and great about life will remain that way forever.
Listing — “whether we bear it for beast,/for child, for woman or friend” — the grouping together of the concrete nouns “beast’, “child”, ‘woman’ and “friend” implies that Walcott categorizes his personal relationships into four distinctive aspects: the love he feels for animals and pets, the parental love he feels towards children, the passionate love he has for women and the affinity he shares with his friends. He resolves that in the face these four loves are all the same, though intellectually it seems as though they should be different, deep down they feel the same in his soul — he feels just as strongly for his dog as he would for his child, for his partner as he would his friend, and were he to lose a loved one he would feel the same intensity of grief.
Epizeuxis — “it is blest, it is blest.” — the final line of the poem repeats itself almost like an incantation, using epizeuxis to emphasize the idea that sad emotions and feelings of emptiness are also a kind of blessing and should be appreciated rather than hated. It appears that Walcott finds a kind of meta-consolation in the fact that even though he cannot feel happy after the death of his dog, he can appreciate that his extreme process of grieving is in itself a way of celebrating Oddjob’s life and a testament to his memory.
Elegy — the poem has an elegiac form, it is written as an elegy — a poem that commemorates the dead. In this case, the commemoration is for Oddjob, Walcott’s pet dog, but the emotions and experiences he expresses are applied more universally to the other loved people that Walcott has lost in his life. We are exposed to flashes of Oddjob’s character and the ways in which Walcott appreciated him throughout the poem, such as “the dog’s whimper”, the sound he made when he was afraid or upset, and the “silence” where ‘we are stricken dumb and deep as the animals who never utter love/ as we do.”
This latter point refers to the idea that in times of extreme importance, humans curiously behave in a similar way to animals — reminding us that we are all one and connected with nature, rather than separate from or superior to it. The animals, such as Walcott’s dog, are unable to ‘utter love’, they cannot express their love in words, yet they do express it nonetheless — through gestures and behaviors, even in their silent company, by being there for us in times of need. For Walcott, it is interesting that he finds himself in a similar state of silence, reverting back to a more primal and animalistic state of being when faced with grief — his words and education fail him, and he can do nothing but sit quietly and think, or feel, without being able to articulate these thoughts.
Opening — “You prepare for one sorrow / but another comes” — the poem opens with a deterministic attitude that implies we cannot ever be fully prepared for the chaos of life, even if we try to steel ourselves against a moment we know will cause us hardship or pain, something else may randomly happen instead and throw us off course.
The use of direct address “you” creates a conversational style, as if Walcott is speaking frankly and honestly with his reader, but it also could be said to serve as a warning, directly speaking to the reader and reminding them that some difficulties in life are impossible to avoid or to fully prepare for.
Volta — the second stanza has a turning point where it undergoes a shift in tone, instead of speaking generally and abstractly about how we are supposed to cope with grief and loss Walcott turns his attention to the deepest aspect of grief: “the silence” that comes at the heart of any serious experience of loss, the way we are rendered speechless and can only feel, deeply, without being able to communicate our feelings.
This is the same as “the silence of the dead”, the way in which we no longer hear the voices or feel the presence of our loved ones as if we ourselves mirror that state of death as we grieve. The ending, however, has a curiously hopeful and celebratory tone as Walcott repeats that this silence is “blest”, it is holy and spiritual and we should be grateful for it because we only feel deeply hurt and empty after loss because we had once experienced an equal measure of extreme love.
Free verse — the poem has no set rhyme or meter, being in free verse with irregular line and stanza length. This gives it the appearance of occurring naturally and organically on the page as if it were a direct thought or expression written down from Walcott’s mind. Nevertheless, certain lines seem deliberately hypermetric — much shorter than average, such as the line “in tears,” or “earth-deep” and “love-deep”.
This shortness of expression emphasizes the point that Walcott finds it hard to put into words his thoughts and feelings, but it also has the effect of accentuating certain images or motifs — such as the tears, which run throughout the poem in the forms of rain and weeping. The compound adjectives “love-deep” and “earth-deep” imply that there is something pure and intense about the silence we experience in grief, as if it is primal and connected to the purest, primitive part of ourselves — we imagine that the first humans on earth must have experienced grief in a similar way to how we experience it now and that no amount of education or civilization can change the way in which we feel loss, as it is a most ancient and natural state of being.
Sometimes the best way to grieve is to be silent — the abstract noun ‘silence’ is repeated throughout the poem to place emphasis on the fact that Walcott cannot find the correct words to express how sad and lost he feels following the death of his dog. This is somewhat ironic as he is a writer by profession, and also well known for his use of an extensive vocabulary, but even an eloquent writer such as himself finds it hard to properly express such deep feelings of loss and grief. The conclusion of the poem is that the silence is more powerful, spiritual, and respectful than trying to find the correct words would be.
Tears and expressions can communicate difficult emotions that are too hard to express in words — the gestures described in the poem — such as the way in which a person may “tremble”, or “look seaward and muse”, losing themselves in the positive memories of the times they spent with their loved one — are all part of the process of grief and a way to engage with and feel relief from the difficult emotions that consume us when faced with death.
When we love deeply, we feel the most extreme sense of loss and grief when the things we love are no longer around — there is a balance of positives and negatives in the poem; Walcott concludes that he could not possibly feel so sad and be so silent if he had not in the first place loved so dearly, so in a sense the terrible feelings of loss are only a testament to the extremely deep, positive connection he had with his dog, and with other loved beings that he had lost in the past.
There is a beautiful sense of spirituality in the process of mourning — because the sadness and silence is an expression of great love, the poem concludes that the process of mourning and feelings of grief are in fact ‘blest’, they are highly spiritual and put us in touch with a higher sense of ourselves and a deeper connection with the world around us. Though it is not nice in itself to feel sad or to grieve, it confirms our great capacity for love and reminds us how lucky we were to have met and spent time with the person or pet that we loved, and how much of a positive impact they must have made in our lives — an impact that continues with us long after they are gone.
The poem was first published in 1976, in Walcott’s collection entitled “Sea Grapes”. Walcott was 46 years old at the time — a middle aged man who had experienced some significant moments of loss and grief by this point in his life. His father died when he was only 30 years old and Walcott himself was very young, so in some ways he was accustomed to loss from an early age. Yet, here he shows the difficulty of expressing words that properly capture how he feels about the loss of his dog — a bull terrier, a breed that looks a little fierce but is known for its loyalty and companionship.
He concludes that it is impossible to put the feelings into words, but at the same time the silence is more respectful anyway, as it shows the deepest expression of love — a kind of expression that only comes out when a person experiences a great loss in their lives, which is an indication of their great capacity for love and the dearness and importance of the person or pet that has been lost.
Critic Valerie Trueblood in 1978 said that the poem ‘Oddjob, A Bull Terrier’ “is in a special English tradition of animal poems: we think of Hardy’s poem to his cat.” She noted how the poem appeared near the end of his collection, in a “serious” position that meant it was intended to be read deeply and seriously. She observes further that “the dog’s silence is one of his mysteries — and its death leaves more silence. The poet looks for a reason for his disproportionate grief and finds only that “You prepare for one sorrow/ but another comes”.
- Transition / Change
POSSIBLE ESSAY QUESTIONS
- Discuss Walcott’s attitudes to grief and loss in “Oddjob, A Bull Terrier” and two other poems of your choice.
- Discuss Walcott’s attitudes to grief and loss in “Oddjob, A Bull Terrier” and two other poems of your choice.
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