How Does a Focus on Animals Change the Ode and Biography?

4465 words (18 pages) Essay in Literature

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How does a focus on animals change the ode and biography?

The biography as a literary genre and poetic form of an ode both hold historical definitions and readers adopt a traditional interpretation to the style of writing. This refers to an ode’s traditional definition regarding its function to be read ‘in the form of an address to a particular subject,’[1] suggesting a purpose to be performed to a certain individual. Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Dog’ presents an argument for unity between man and dog, with his focus on the mater aimed towards to the domestic animal. His focus on animals does not change the tradition definition of an ode. Barbara Smuts on the other hand, explores the purpose of biography in a different form, her discussion of another subject being wild animals. In ‘Reflections’ her account of the life of baboons in their natural habitat changes the natural assumption that biographies are description of a human’s life.                                                                                                                                                                Although, Neruda and Smuts differ in their approach, as authors their focus on animals generates a change in how the text is received because of a unique perspective from a non-human subject. The importance of such change reflects the difficulties which arise as a result of adopting non-human focus. Both authors use literary devices and stylistic decisions to enable the understanding of voice and intention of the ode and biography. My argument is the given examples of text explored and analysed does not change the ode or biography, however provide a different style of literature. 

Discussion of animal and human relationship in literature, studies the history of marginalising animals within society. In his book Ecocriticism, Greg Garrard analyses the representation of animals from an ethical and moral point of view. He claims, ‘[t]he boundary between human and animal is arbitrary,’[2] which suggests a random or unreasoned divide between humans and animals. His concept of animal rights highlights the division and hierarchy created, where humans place themselves at the top. This is evident in both the ode and biography discussed in this essay, as authors seek to shift the cultural perspective of animals viewed as outsides to humanity. Odes and biographies which focus on animals relate to the theory of ecocriticism as their discussion of the natural environment presents a protest for change in perspective. The significance of a non-human focus is the author’s attempt to change how the ode and biography is read, suggesting that there should not be a set way.

     In her biography ‘Reflections’, Smuts discusses the world of baboons referring to the animal in a human-like manner. The beginning of the biography presents the perception of two separate worlds when she challenges readers to open their mind to another concept. The particular line, ‘an embodied heart, prepared to encounter directly the embodied heart of another’[3] implies two separate individuals, human and animal. Through the word ‘another’ suggests a separation to wild animals, however Smuts attempts to invite humans to express themselves to the baboon. The verb ‘embodied’ illustrates the author’s challenge to readers to express themselves to another being despite it being a different species. Her claim, ‘I will attempt to close this gap’[4] presents the purpose of the biography suggesting it is not exclusively a description of another subject but rather a movement to bring animals and humans on a similar level. This refers to the change on the biography as a result of animal focus where the author has adapted the traditional idea of insight to human life and instead exploring animal life. The ‘gap’ Smuts refers to is similar to Garrard’s concept of boundary.                                                                                                                    Culturally humans have inherited an ideology that animals live in a world separate to that of their own and the two cannot overlap. The context behind human and non-human interaction is widely discussed and Randy Malamud claims that ‘[t]he relationship between people and nonhuman animals is codified in social culture as hierarchical and fundamentally impermeable.’[5] This outlines that the issue of marginalizing animals rests with man’s upbringing and such a thought is closed to any change. Smuts presents a biography which seeks to destroy the prejudgment of wild animals through her representation of baboons and comparing them to humans. This is achieved through her discourse associated with human life for example ‘immersion in their society’[6] which suggests a community within another species and as a result changes readers reception of the biography. The significance of such change is Smuts modification to the definition of a biography changing the assumption that a biography is the discussion of a person’s life. 

In addition to this, Smuts acknowledges the representation of animals in comparison to humans as she talks of an ancestral right when exploring the natural world. Throughout her biography, Smuts places emphasise on human’s assumption of hierarchy within the natural world which places humans at the top. Through her experience with animals, an overwhelming feeling of ‘regained […] ancestral right to be an animal’[7] highlights the element of familial history between human and primate. The significance of including a relationship between animals and primate which dates back historically, emphasises the connection between the two.                                                                       Furthermore, this reference signifies to readers the shared relationship to baboons and encourages them to question the boundary society has formed. Anat Pick argues animals are ‘perceived as pure necessity material bodies pitted against human mindfulness and soulfulness’[8] which addresses an anthropocentric perspective. Pick claims that a comparison between animals and humans’ results in favour for mankind; placing them as superior. Smuts does not claim an anthropocentric view point but instead argues against it. This is observed through her desperation to form a relationship with baboons and her lack of favouritism for human values. Throughout her biography, Smuts refers to her invasion into the baboon world and highlights the importance of ‘human-baboon intersubjectivity.’[9] The notion of intersubjectivity refers to the sharing of values and subject between more than one individual. Smuts seeks to alter this idea of individuals slightly by proposing a human and baboon relationship. Such emphasize on non-human subjects changes how readers perceive biography and invites a new purpose for biography, to offer insight to animal’s life whilst forming a sense of equality to humans.

     Smuts breeches the inherited barrier between human and primates as she attempts to humanize baboons. The idea of humanizing a baboon refers to the individual character and identity each animal, Smuts does so through naming each baboon. Smuts’ decision to assign identity to each baboon is anchored by the choice of names an example being ‘Cicero.’[10] The reference to important and intelligent Ancient Greek figures infers Smuts aim to place importance upon animals and eliminate any preassigned division between animals and human intelligence. Anthropomorphism is a literary technique used to ascribe human traits upon non-human subjects, attempting to change how animals such as baboons are perceived by readers. The effect of such device emphasizes Smuts’ aim to alleviate division between human and animal. The literary device, anthropomorphism is used to ascribe human traits upon the baboons which as a result changes how animals are portrayed. The effect of such device emphasises Smuts’ aim to alleviate division between human and animal.

     Furthermore, in discussion to how a focus on animals changes the concept of biography one must consider the purpose of biography writing. Nigel Hamilton explores the history of biography, providing evidence of evolutionary biography and its purpose. He proposes, ‘its crucial contribution to our knowledge [and] understanding’[11]is the biggest function of a biography especially in reference to past civilization. The knowledge and understanding readers obtain when reading any biography is a purpose for most biography writing, including Smuts. This is evident in the particular line, ‘I learned much that I could confidently report as scientific findings,’[12] giving insight into the function of the biography. Although, Smuts has taken on a different approach to the idea of biography her work does not change the ultimate function of a biography, which is to inform readers the life of another. There is an argument that animal focused biography does not differ from the traditional biography, because something remains to be learnt and understand but from a unique perspective. If one were to value Hamilton’s definition of a biography providing knowledge, then Smuts’ ‘Reflection’ is no different because she offers insight to the life of a baboon.

     The subject of human and animal relationship is similarly explored in Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Dog’ which seeks to form a unity between a man and his pet. Neruda achieves this through his language and narrative voice, which switches from one individual to another and can be observed in his frequent noun choices such as, ‘we’ and ‘man and dog.’[13] The effect narrative voice has on the ode is how readers follow the ode, using a first-person narrative assigns voice to the reader and encourages a personal reading of the ode. This is important because Neruda is able to project his own thoughts and feelings in regard to animal and human relationship onto the reader. 

     The definition of an ode and what one includes changes throughout centuries, one particular explanation for twentieth century odes is, ‘lyrical poems which, originating in personal impulses, rise to the presentation of general ideas of some gravity.’[14] This particular definition explores the function of an ode in expressing personal emotion and thought which the author deems important. This is evident in ‘Ode to the Dog’ through Neruda’s expression of personal thought towards human and non-human relationship. Throughout his ode repetition of the phrase, ‘man and dog’[15] in conjunction with words of companionship and togetherness, highlights to readers his intention to form a relationship between the two individuals. Taking into consideration the function of an ode to express personalized impulse towards a subject, Neruda makes little change to this definition in his ‘Ode to the dog.’ On the other hand, one could argue that Neruda’s decision to include a dog’s perspective alters the traditional human voice. An example of this, is the description of ‘sniffing the world, parting the clover’[16] which connotes the actions of a dog. The significance of the verb ‘sniffing’ suggests to readers Neruda’s attempt to present an ode that is from a unique perspective, the perspective of a non-human individual. The discourse surrounding a dog’s actions and his thoughts infuses a different element to a tradition ode and argues a focus on animals changes the style of the ode. This illustrates the influence narrative voice can have on an ode and the conscious decisions made by the author. Narrative voice is a key element to an ode because of its traditional function to be sung or performed with an intended addressee in mind. Neruda adapts this idea through his focus on a dog and his declaration in the title that his ode is intend to the animal. Therefore, his focus on an animal does alter the perspective of the ode, however Neruda does not change the overall function of the ode.

     In addition to this, Neruda use of literary devices emphasises his own ideas regarding animals which results in readers inferring the authors intention. His focus on this topic is illustrated by the technique zoomorphism used to associate a sense of connection between dog and man. Towards the end of the ode, Neruda explicitly intertwines the two individuals when it says, ‘of being man and dog/converted/into a single animal.’[17] The verb ‘converted’ implies an adaptation of the idea of man and animal as two separate identities and invites readers to perceive the two as one. The interesting choice of the noun ‘animal’ to identify the conversion of man and dog, highlights Neruda’s focus on animals as he claims humans are an animal themselves. This is similar to Smuts’ own discussion of human and non-human relationship, they both seek to form a unity amongst the two worlds.                                                                             

     Furthermore, Neruda presents an argument in favour for animals when he describes the actions of a dog to be valued. Throughout the ode, the dog is pictured running about and enjoying what he knows and he ‘brings the point of his nose/like a gift.’[18] Readers can infer Neruda’s value for a dog’s nose as a ‘gift’ has connotations of offering something to someone that they do not have. One could argue a dog is able to view the world in a different way and that this should be valued. This idea is strengthened through Neruda’s descriptive language of the environment mentioning leaves and green meadows. The focus on how a dog explores the environment differently supports the viewpoint that ‘[w]e must understand and appreciate animals more extensively [and] more intelligently.’[19] This is an idea Neruda explores through his value for animals and their knowledge to view the world in a different way. Neruda touches upon the epoch Anthropocene and suggests human actions should reflect that of a dog because they see the simplistic beauty within nature. Neruda expresses this point through a non-human object which is a change in focus within an ode. The significance of an animal focused ode is the difficulties encountered by the author and their ability to present emotions through another individual but also a whole different species. These challenges are over come through Neruda’s decision to blur the division between human and animal identity, producing a new way to view the concept of the ode. The effect this has is the change in how readers would understand and define what an ode is and his focus on a dog enables him to achieve a different perspective.

     Smuts and Neruda as a comparison presents two opposing perspective of animal focus in literature, with one biography about wild animals and an ode focusing on the domestic pet.  The significance of each animal is the cultural association made between the two, which is evident in Smuts’ biography when she discusses the term pet claiming, ‘the very word ‘pet’ connotates a lesser being than the wild counterpart.’[20] This suggests that a wild animal is viewed freer than a pet because they are not domesticated or under ownership to a human. The effect of the focus on a wild or domestic animal is the change it has on the ode or biography. This is an argument explored in Ecocriticism where Garrard announces that to ‘modern readers, domestic animals are beloved, familiar and invisible.’[21] Garrard describes human’s natural inclination to favour a dog because it is more domesticated than a wild animal.

     In reference to ‘Ode to the dog’, Neruda incorporates the relationship between man and his dog in terms on knowledge, throughout the dog is pictured looking to his owner for answers. The immediate first lines of the ode, ‘The dog asks me/ and I have no answer’[22] distinguishes the opposing roles placing the human as a source of knowledge. This links back to the arguments surrounding anthropocentrism and the cultural perception of humans as the most important entity. Neruda challenges this idea in the same stanza, when he concludes with, ‘I’ve no answer/no answer because/ I don’t know’[23] suggesting humans are not as intelligent as they think. The ode changes the cultural ideas focused on animals and places them on the same level as humans. Smuts adopts a similar approach in her attention towards animals as important individuals, however her focus is aimed towards wild baboons which changes the reception slightly. This is something Garrard acknowledges when he states, ‘the fascination and remoteness of wild animals is provoked […] by wildlife documentaries’[24] implying there is little talk of wild animals in literature. As a result, ‘Reflections’ is interpreted differently because of the focus on a world that every day readers would know little about. This is evident through Smuts claim, ‘to gain objective, replicable information about the animals’ lives’[25] which presents the desire to provide knowledge and insight to a different world. Although, Smuts has taken on a different approach to biography writing her work does not change the ultimate function of a biography, which is to inform readers the life of another.

     A focus on animals in an ode and biography does change the perspective and intention of the text, inviting readers to understand a different world. This is evident in Smuts’ ‘Reflections’ as she discusses the life of another individual and Neruda’s focuses on man and dog in his ode. The argument that a focus on animals changes the ode and biography is explored through narrative voice and the significance this has regarding authorial intention. Both Smuts and Neruda’s focus on non-human perspective changes how readers understand the text as they are encouraged to think differently about what a biography or ode is. The significance of such change is the challenge towards human perspective as an important or required feature to specific genres or form of writing. An ode or biography remains to function the same way whether or not an animal focus is adopted. 


-          Garrard, Greg, Ecocriticism, 2nd edn (Oxford: Routledge, 2012).

-          Hamilton, Nigel, Biography: a brief history (London: Harvard University Press, 2009), <> [accessed 18 January 2019].

-          Neruda, Pablo, ‘Ode to the Dog’ In Odes and Biographies (Bath: Bath Spa University, 2018) pp.346-348

-          Pick, Anat, creaturely POETICS: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011).

-          Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation (NY: Harper Collins, 2002).

-          Smuts, Barbara, ‘Reflections’ in Odes and Biographies (Bath: Bath Spa University, 2018) pp.367-374

[1] Ode, N.”, Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2004) < > [Accessed 17 January 2019]

[2] Garrard, Greg, Ecocriticism, 2nd edn (Oxford: Routledge, 2012) p.147

[3] Barbara, Smuts ‘Reflections’ in Odes and Biographies (Bath: Bath Spa University, 2018) p.368

[4] Smuts, p.368

[6] Smuts, p.369

[7] Smuts, p.368

[8] Anat, Pick creaturely POETICS: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (NY: Columbia University Press, 2011) p.4

[9]Smuts, p.369

[10] Smuts, p.370

[11] Nigel, Hamilton Biography: a brief history (London: Harvard University Press, 2009), <> [accessed 18 January 2019] p.8

[12] Smuts, p.368

[13] Pablo, Neruda ‘Ode to the Dog’ In Odes and Biographies (Bath: Bath Spa University, 2018) p.346

[14] Jump, John D, The Ode (Oxford: Routledge, 2017) <> [accessed 19 January 2019] p.59

[15] Neruda, p.346

[16] Neruda, p.346

[17] Neruda, p.348

[18] Neruda, p.347

[19] Malamud, p.43

[20]Smuts, p.371

[21] Garrard, p.173

[22] Neruda, p.346

[23] Neruda, p.346

[24] Garrard, p.173

[25] Smuts, p.368

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