This is an episode in the “What Makes Us Human?” podcast from Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, showcasing the newest thinking from across the disciplines about what it means to be human in the twenty-first century. Featuring audio essays written and recorded by Cornell faculty, the series releases a new episode each Tuesday through the fall.
Western culture has often defined humans as distinct from animals, superior and separate. But pets trouble that sense of separation. They are our intimate animal companions—they draw our love; they share our homes and lives; they are members of our families. It was in the early eighteenth century that the West started to imagine a new kind of proximity between human and non-human beings. This was when the great apes were discovered and when people began keeping pets. Poets portrayed women’s love for their pets in a new genre, the lapdog poem, which showed the relations between humans and animals as near, intimate and loving. If we think of literature as a distinctively human enterprise, and love as a distinctively human capacity, we get stuck when it comes to pets, since these non-human animals spark literary innovation and challenge us to imagine cross-species love.
In the early eighteenth-century, the lapdog lyric becomes a widespread, popular literary form. It is an intentionally satirical genre, taking dignified poetic traditions and turning them upside down, including epitaphs for lapdogs and encomiums for lapdogs and praise poems for lapdogs. These poems return again and again to a specific group of images that include laps, breasts, and thighs, and they describe the shared intimacy of the lovers’ gaze. They focus on the excesses and pleasures of the lady who is in love with her lapdog. This female figure even rejects her human suitor or her husband in favor of a disturbing cross-species affinity.
When it comes to poetic form, lapdog lyrics are unconventional. They insist on switching perspectives—from far to near, from aversion to affinity, from difference to connection. They use these reversals to open up incongruities, like the jealous suitor’s question—“Pray, who wou’d be Man? when a Dog’s so well us’d?” These poems also shift perspectives to describe a startling sort of pleasure, and an “unmeasurable” and unexpected form of love.
Sharp and funny, these images of how we love have continued into our own time, with an ongoing impact on the imaginative representation of intimacy. We still wonder whether we can or should describe our love for our pets in the same terms that we use for our human loved ones; we still marvel at the proximity between humans and non-humans; and we may be learning something about how we love human beings from our literary experiments with cross species love.