Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Death of the Wolf"


The poem "The Death of the Wolf" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of an Alfred de Vigny poem. It describes the hunting and killing of a male wolf, and subsequently, the speaker's realization of the quiet pride of nature. The poem opens with a group of hunters trekking through the woods, having "already tracked" a family of wolves. Suddenly, "the oldest" among them crouches and picks up the prints of this family, "two wolves full-grown, followed by two cubs," in the sand. After coming upon the wolves, the speaker remarks that they appear as "joyous greyhounds," and he speaks of the she-wolf nursing her cubs as if she were a classical statue, a "marble image." Meanwhile, the male, father wolf strangles one of the hunting dogs and is killed by knives and gunfire. The male wolf dies with dignity and quietude, "deigning not to know whence death had come."

The speaker, upon witnessing this proud and calm death of the wolf, then reflects on the instincts of the she-wolf to protect her cubs and sacrifice her mate, which the speaker sees as more honorable and upstanding than the choice to surrender or become domesticated like a dog. Finally, the speaker considers human life in light of this realization, and comments that normal human life is marked by "vanity and weakness" because humans must depend on both others and "events." The poem ends with a call that the speaker imagines from the she-wolf to all humans, to "fulfill thy calling high; / Then after that, like me, without complaint, / Suffer and die, nor care to leave a name."


In terms of form, the poem is written in three sections and covers 123 lines. It is written in blank verse, meaning that it does not have a regular rhyme scheme, and many of its lines are written in iambic pentameter (five feet of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables). The lack of rhyme and careful attention to meter in the poem allows the poem to be free of rhyming constraints and instead create poetic effects through the motion and rhythm of its words. This form aligns nicely with the central meaning of the poem, since the lack of rhyme and communication of poetic intent through rhythm is less artificial and constructed than rhyming poetry, more closely mirroring natural human speech. The poem's central appeal to natural ways of life and central rejection of human society's vanity are thus underscored by the poet's more natural way of expressing himself.

The central appeal to natural ways of life and rejection of human vanity is an interpretive thread that pervades even the smallest details of the poem. The lengthy first section, when the speaker and his hunting party comes across the wolf family and slays the father wolf, foregrounds this central appeal as early as the description of the night, which is described as "dark" and silent. In contrast to this silence of the woods, where "ancient oaks and other lofty trees [...] / [Seem] wrapt in slumber peaceful and profound," the only sound that can be heard is from "the distant village weathercock / creaked to the firmament." The world of human society is noisy and intrusive, while the natural world is quiet and serene. Further, while the darkness of the woods is tranquil and enveloping, the "flashing lustre" of the hunters' guns and knives is "too white in the surrounding darkness." Here, too, the human is coded as intrusive upon the natural world and subverts natural order.

As the idea that humans fundamentally conflict with nature develops throughout the poem, a central comparison is introduced between the wolves being hunted and domesticated dogs, first with the appearance of "greyhounds" in the first section. Importantly, while the speaker says the wolves are dancing like greyhounds, their dance is silent, while the greyhounds' dance is noisy: "Similar was their form / And similar the dance; only the wolves /And cubs gambolled in silence." Silence is one of the two key elements that has heretofore been associated with wildness and nature, so the wolves' maintenance of silence serves to distinguish them from the greyhounds of the human world.

After the scenes in which the speaker sets up the wolves as the "mortal foe[s]" of humans and comments on the she-wolf's classical beauty, we then witness the male wolf strangling and killing a hunting hound—a direct triumph of the natural over the artificial and manmade. After the male wolf dies, the speaker furthers this comparison between domestic dogs and wild wolves in the second section when commenting on what is perceived to be the wolves' credo: "Never to enter into terms with man, / (Such as exist between him and the tribes / Of servile animals that bear his yoke, / Or chase the first possessors of the woods /And rocks before him, to obtain a place / To sleep in, and a pittance from his hand,)." The animals who "chase the first possessors of the woods" are hunting dogs themselves, and this phrase serves to deepen the contrast between domesticated wildlife and natural wildlife.

In the third section, where the speaker then turns his reflections to the human realm, he remarks that "Silence is great alone, and all the rest / Is vanity and weakness." This implicit claim about the supremacy of nature's silence serves to reinforce the speaker's veneration of what is later called "stoic pride" of nature. Thus, by the end of the poem, the speaker has found a kind of beauty and truth in the life of the woods' "savage denizen[s]," and desires greater independence and endurance for humans.

Besides this main thrust of the poem, however, many other interesting interpretive distinctions are foregrounded. For example, the speaker takes care to both treat the wolves as savage and wild, but also as classical and formal, worthy of a "thou" form of address. The speaker also actively tests the value of instinct and knowledge throughout the poem, seeming to prefer the former over the latter. As such, the poem carries many elements familiar from the other translations conducted by Toru Dutt—Romantic respect for nature and a desire for humanity to be more thoroughly engaged with it, the relationship of the poet to beauty and how the poet frames discussions of beauty, the relationship between humanity and nature in general, and the experience of death or loss.