Garcilaso de la Vega saw military service in North Africa in the 1530s, when he was present at the siege and capture of Tunis by the Spanish and Neapolitan forces. During this campaign it is quite possible that he saw a real scene, as depicted in this poem, of a dying dog in the desert. But of course, purely descriptive poetry was, I think, quite rare at this time, and so he uses the scene to build an allegory of absence and loss which generalises it to a universal experience. But I like this poem as much for the fact that it seems to be clearly based on something the poet personally witnessed, as for the more general meaning or for the elegance of the form and language.
A la entrada de un valle, en un desierto
do nadie atravesaba ni se vía,
vi que con extrañeza un can hacía
extremos de dolor con desconcierto:
ahora suelta el llanto al cielo abierto,
ora va rastreando por la vía:
camina, vuelve, para, y todavía
quedaba desmayado como muerto.
Y fue que se apartó de su presencia
su amo, y no lo hallaba, y eso siente:
mirad hasta dó llega el mal de ausencia.
Movióme a compasión ver su accidente;
díjele, lastimado: “Ten paciencia,
que yo alcanzo razón, y estoy ausente”.
The first two stanzas are an entirely visual description of a dog dying in the desert, howling, obviously in pain, dragging itself up and down the track and finally collapsing as if it were already dead. Note that Garcilaso chooses to use an archaic (or perhaps poetic?) word for dog, “can”, instead of the everyday word, “perro”.
The third stanza brings the poet into the picture from being a mere observer, to an interpreter, speculating that the dog has lost its master and has been brought to its pitiful state by the master’s absence or neglect. Very plausible, of course, in the case of a real dog.
The final stanza evokes the compassion of the poet as an onlooker and offers a shared experience of suffering through absence – in the dog’s case, absence of its master, in the poet’s case, probably absence from his homeland and loved ones, and, by implication, the universal experience of absence and loss. In this way, a particular episode is given broad significance, relevant to all, at all times. Thus, one of the functions of a fine poem is fulfilled.
The Poetry Dude