The song is about the reality and value of unity and creative activity, as opposed to separateness and inactivity. It is extremely concise and exhibits the sort of complexity and compression normally associated with metaphysical poetry.
The first allusion to the themes is in the title ‘If Dogs Run Free’, a phrase which gets repeated throughout the song. ‘Run’ indicates that the concern is with action. ‘Free’ is ambiguous between free from each other and free from other things. Though dogs can act individually, free from each other, they achieve more if they hunt as a pack, a unified whole, and so in a way not free from each other. Even as a pack, however, they are still running free in that their activity is unconstrained by other things. Which sense of ‘free’ is apposite at a particular point in the song will depend on whether it is at that point extolling individuality or togetherness.
Unities arising from togetherness are apparent from the outset. In the first verse the separate, individual sounds the writer hears coalesce to become
… a symphony
Of two mules, trains and rain
‘Symphony’ here refers to a harmony of sound heard in the actual world. In harmonising, the separate sounds become one harmonious sound.
On hearing this sound, the writer is then led to create further harmony to reflect the experience – as he tells us in the second verse:
My mind weaves a symphony
And tapestry of rhyme
This second ‘symphony’ and the ‘tapestry of rhyme’, are the writer’s tools for representing the sounds he has heard. And, indeed, the earlier sounds are picked out by words which rhyme -‘two’ and ‘mules’, and then ‘trains’ and ‘rain’. This rhyming harmonises the words in a symphony just as the original sounds in the world were harmonised in a symphony by the writer’s hearing them.
A further unity then arises. For the audience, the first symphony of sound can only be known by way of the second – the writer’s words used to represent it. For the audience, then, there is no distinction between the two symphonies. They are one.
A related feature of the song is the breaking down of the usual distinctions between stability (or stasis)and movement (and, in consequence, the distinction between the spatial and the temporal). The distinction between movement and stability is lost when the plain is described as ‘swooping’, a term one would be more likely to associate with a plane, rather than something as immobile as a plain! It is lost again with the reference to ‘the swamp of time’. Time, which is in fact dynamic, is represented as static, like a swamp. Since ‘swooping’ has positive connotations, and ‘swamp’ only negative ones, it would appear that for the writer things are valued only if they retain or acquire a dynamic quality, and not if they retain or acquire a static one. The static should become dynamic, but not vice versa. The absurdity of time losing its dynamic quality is apparent in the clichéd pronouncement ‘The best is always yet to come’. In a dynamic world this is untrue – the best will not remain in the future but will often be achieved.
A unity out of movement and stability arises again with
Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee
So it may flow and be
The tale’s existence (‘be’) depends on its movement (‘flow’). Since the singer’s ‘tale’ is about reality, the actual world, the suggestion is that there is only true existence where the dynamic and the static are united. There is no being (static) unless there is flowing (dynamic) – and then since the being is flowing, it cannot be static. This applies to the tale in that, unless it is passed on, it fails to be a tale.
These mergers (of sounds in the world and the sounds of words, and of stability and movement) parallel another merger – that of the singular and plural. Rhyme is again involved in drawing attention to this. The first line of the first verse ends in ‘we’, and the first line of the second verse ends in its rhyming, singular counterpart ‘me’. It is, then, when the two ‘me’s’ become ‘we’ that, the writer’s tale achieves its ‘being’. Put another way, it is only when the two individuals involved in writing and hearing the tale come together, that the tale get its ‘being’.
Singulars becoming plurals is also apparent in each of the pairs of rhymes (‘two mules, trains and rain’) considered above. In each pair a singular is coupled with a plural – ‘two’ and ‘rain’ are singular, whereas ‘mules’ and ‘trains’ are plural. At the same time, although singular, ‘two’ represents duality, and thus plurality – and ‘rain’ can be taken to stand for a plurality of water drops. In each case, then, a plurality becomes a unity, a whole – the drops become ‘rain’, and the mules become ‘two’, i.e. a single pair.
So far it would appear that unities arising from togetherness are to be preferred to their separate, individual constituent parts. This again becomes apparent at the end of the first verse. Here some mindless, clichéd advice – in effect to go it alone – is derided by way of rhyme (which, presumably to emphasise the point, is miserably banal). And although action is advised, unlike in the case of the tale it is independent action:
Just do your thing, you’ll be king
However, having derided the idea of independent action, the song then goes on to explore the alternative to it – to see if there is in fact any virtue in it. Whereas the ‘why not we’ of the first verse seems to deride individual action, the ‘why not me’ of the second verse seems to see value in it. Furthermore, it is the writer’s mind alone – ‘my mind’ – which produces the symphony and tapestry of rhyme.
Nevertheless, despite this, it is made clear that ultimately individual action is undesirable:
To each his own, it’s all unknown
The suggestion here is that if the writer’s tale is not shared with someone else (‘To each his own’), its content will remain unknown. And since the tale is about reality, reality – though it will exist – will remain unknown. There won’t be anything more that can be said about it:
… then what must be
Must be, and that is all
Two lines into the final verse, the writer’s allegiance to unity arising from togetherness has been established.
The remainder of the final verse relates the claims (that being involves action, and that unity is superior to separateness) to lovers and to reality as a whole. With respect to the first claim, that being involves action, we are told, in lines replete with positive connotations, that
True love can make a blade of grass
Stand up straight and tall
While on a literal level what’s being said is obviously untrue (!), it is significant that what is being extolled are the dynamic qualities of true love – it causes the grass to grow. The phallic overtones suggest that the dynamism, more literally, is sexual. Accordingly true love can have no being without sexual activity. Nor can any offspring. The being of each is activity dependant.
Activity is also alluded to in the phrase ‘the cosmic sea’, presumably a reference to the whole of reality. The word ‘sea’ draws attention to the necessary dynamic qualities of that reality. True love and reality as a whole are both characterised by activity.
The second claim, that unity is superior to separateness, is also apparent here. In the lines
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
true love is deemed to be complete, and to mirror the unity and completeness of the whole of reality. Furthermore it becomes integrated in that reality since, in being a self-sufficient, unified, dynamically-dependant whole, it is ‘in harmony’ with it (thus echoing the harmony characterising the symphonies of sound and rhyme). Because it is complete and mirrors the unity of the whole of reality, true love doesn’t involve two separate individuals, but individuals who in some sense have lost their individuality and become one. And just as the two symphonies not only each integrated separate sounds and words but themselves became integrated, so true love not only brings together the lovers but enables them to become integrated in the unity of the whole of reality by way of harmonising with it.