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Poetry Analysis: Henry Lawson's 'The Cattle-dog's Death'

Updated on November 8, 2016
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Erwin Cabucos writes from Brisbane, Australia. He has Masters in English Education from the University of New England.

Australian poet Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson in the pre-1988 Australian Ten Dollar note
Henry Lawson in the pre-1988 Australian Ten Dollar note | Source

Teaching Henry Lawson's 'The Cattle-dog's death'

How do you scaffold students in the lower secondary to learn how to analyse a poem? It is tempting to direct them to various websites to get some information on how to do the job, but the following is a demonstration of the simple process of understanding the meanings, finding evidence and examining poetic techniques. Let us use Henry Lawson's 'The Cattle-dog's death'.

1. Reading of the poem. Let students hear the poem, either by reading it as a class or someone reads it loudly for them. Direct their attention to the alliteration, assonance, rhyme and other techniques used towards the sound of the poem. Not just once, but at least twice, then even more. You may vary the reading by having boys and girls read lines alternately. Or having it recorded then played in the classroom.

The Cattle-dog's death by Henry Lawson

The Plains lay bare on the homeward route,​
And the march was heavy on man and brute;​
For the Spirit of Drought was on all the land,​
And the white heat danced on the glowing sand. ​

The best of our cattle-dogs lagged at last,​
His strength gave out ere the plains were passed,​
And our hearts grew sad when he crept and laid​
His languid limbs in the nearest shade. ​

He saved our lives in the years gone by,​
When no one dreamed of the danger nigh,​
And the treacherous blacks in the darkness crept​
On the silent camp where the drovers slept. ​

‘The dog is dying,’ a stockman said,​
As he knelt and lifted the shaggy head;​
‘’Tis a long day’s march ere the run be near,​
‘And he’s dying fast; shall we leave him here?’ ​

But the super cried, ‘There’s an answer there!’​
As he raised a tuft of the dog’s grey hair;​
And, strangely vivid, each man descried​
The old spear-mark on the shaggy hide.

We laid a ‘bluey’ and coat across​
The camping pack of the lightest horse,​
And raised the dog to his deathbed high,​
And brought him far ’neath the burning sky. ​

At the kindly touch of the stockmen rude​
His eyes grew human with gratitude;​
And though we parched in the heat that fags,​
We gave him the last of the water-bags. ​

The super’s daughter we knew would chide​
If we left the dog in the desert wide;​
So we brought him far o’er the burning sand​
For a parting stroke of her small white hand. ​

But long ere the station was seen ahead,​
His pain was o’er, for the dog was dead​
And the folks all knew by our looks of gloom​
’Twas a comrade’s corpse that we carried home.

2. Finding definitions. Poems are written in another era or context, this might have affected the choices of words and expressions by the author. Understanding words and expressions used in the poem is crucial to forming good interpretation of the poem. Get students to identify words they do not understand and ask them to locate definitions from the dictionary. Then project the following terms:

  • On man and brut - stockman and natives
  • Spirit of Drouth was on all the land - Old English Literary character for drought.
  • His languid limbs - weak
  • Treacherous blacks - stealthy, robbers. At the time denoted by Lawson, Aboriginal People were seen hunting white men's livestock for food. Easier than wild hunting.
  • Rover - moving places to find living
  • Shaggy head - full of hair
  • Bluey - blue blanket that holds the swag
  • Descried -seen
  • Stockmen rude - a construction of stockmen
  • Stockmen -people who looked after livestock
  • Comrade - mate
  • Station -property in the bush

3. Understanding the subject matter or overall theme of the poem. Asking students what the poem might NOT be about is one way. For example, is the poem about computers? Is the poem about sport? Then solicit some responses until the closest reply arrives. For example, one common subject matter of the Henry Lawson's 'The Cattle-dog's death' is life in the bush. Ask students WHY they think so. Are there evidence to support that? For that reading, the following supporting evidence may be:

  • The title: cattle-dog
  • The characters: the stockman, the super, the rover
  • The setting: the plains, the silent camp, the desert the station
  • The narrative of the poem: the death of the cattle-dog in the presence of the parched stockmen

4. Meaning of the poem. Formulating the overall meaning or message of the poem is interesting because students will come up with different answers, but emphasize to them the importance of evidence. Why did you say so? What evidence can you use as back-up. Here are possible meanings for Henry Lawson's 'The Cattle-dog's death:

  • Henry Lawson’s ‘The Cattle-dog’s death’ depicts stockmen's life in the bush, especially the challenges they experience in looking after livestock. There also comes the battle against heat, drought and preciousness of water. The poem is told from the point of view of a stockman. (Evidence from the poem? Look for lines in the poem that support this.)
  • The poem illustrates the importance of Cattle-dogs to stockmen and their family in the bush. A cattle-dog may be an animal but he or she has human importance. The poem hints to the valuable contribution of cattle-dogs in herding. They are comrades (evidence from the poem?)
  • The poem invites sympathy and an experience from readers about the ordinary life, sometimes tragic life circumstances, in the bush. (evidence from the poem?)

5. What poetic techniques or devices used. Presuming that students have already been introduced to the kinds of literary devices used in poems, ask students to identity the kinds of poetic devices used in the poem. Get them to provide examples and get their opinion how might the technique affect or contribute to the meaning of the poem. Project the following on the board:

  • Rhyming: •Examples? •Effect to topic or meaning?
  • Personification •Examples? •Effect to topic or meaning?
  • Description of Imagery •Examples? •Effect to topic or meaning?
  • Use of Narrative, including speakers to tell a story •Evidence? Effect to meaning of the poem?
  • Metaphor: •Evidence? •Effect to the topic or meaning?

6. Discussion. It is important that students should be able to justify the meanings and devices they have identified - very essential to the credibility of their arguments. Their essay will be substantial if evidence abound for the points they raise.

Rhyming: “Route, brute”, “land, sand”, “last, passed”, “laid, shade”, etc, giving a sense of The sound effects created, for example a ‘musical’ quality; a jarring, discordant effect etc.

  • The emphasis that it places on certain words, giving them a prominence.
  • It draws lines and stanzas together linking ideas and images. •It creates a pattern. •It can give a sense of ending or finality – the rhyming couplet is often used to give a sense of ending as in Shakespeare’s Sonnett XVIII –

Personification

“White heat danced on the glowing sands” in the first stanza intensifies the feeling of heat. It creates a more vivid image of the scene.

“Silent camp” in the third stanza paints a clearer picture of the scenario

Descriptions

“treacherous blacks”, “languid limbs” highlights the image that the poem projects.

Use of Narrative, including speakers to tell a story

  • The poem uses a narrator or a speaker to tell a story of a dying cattle-dog amidst the presence of his masters. The story began trying to describe the state of the animal and ends in a strong affection to the animal, such that his passing has left a indelible spot in their life. This is emphasized by the super’s daughter parting stroke from her small white hand.
  • The story contained in the poem gives a significant weight to the message of the poem of the dramatic life of the rovers and stockmen in the bush.
  • Any other impact you can think of?

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