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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Dog Experiments and Poetry

Sir William Empson (whose biography, Among the Mandarins, I have been reading, and about whom I have posted ) once wrote a vilanelle, Missing Dates, one of whose metaphors derives from an experiment that reminds me of the Safar Center’s…

  • July 1, 2005

Sir William Empson (whose biography, Among the Mandarins, I have been reading, and about whom I have posted ) once wrote a vilanelle, Missing Dates, one of whose metaphors derives from an experiment that reminds me of the Safar Center’s zombie dogs.

He wrote,

“They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”

Sir Bill loved these sorts of metaphors derived from science (which is one of the reasons why I like him so). He was a tireless reader of scientific journals, and began his academic career as a Cambridge mathematician.

Explaining the dog metaphor, Empson wrote in his notes to his Collected Poems,

“It is true about the old dog, at least I saw it reported somewhere.”

John Haffenden, Empson’s biographer, tracked down the paper Empson was remembering. From Haffenden’s edition of the Complete Poems

“The experiment to which WE refers… is the one carried out by Alexis Carrel and described by Lecomte de Nouy in Biological Time (London 1936): ‘There was at the Rockerfeller Institute, before the war, a dog nearly eighteen years old. This poor animal never stirred from its corner and could hardly get up to eat… This animal was anaesthetized, put on the operating table, and treated as follows. Carrel bled him by the carotid artery and removed nearly two-thirds of his blood. This blood was collected aseptically and immediately centrifuged, so as to separate the red blood cells from the serum. The red cells were washed in Ringer solution, recentrifuged and mixed with fresh Ringer solution to re-establish the initial volume of blood. This was then reinjected into the dog… After several days, he had regained strength and appetite… Not only did he live, but once over the operative shock, he was a different dog. He ran and barked, a thing he had not done in years. His eyes were clear, his eyelids normal. His coat started to come in; he was gay, active, and most important of all, he was no longer indifferent to the charms of the other sex.’”

But as Empson remembered, the rejuvenation didn’t take. It didn’t last. The waste remained and killed.

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