The Canine Muse

…Blessings on thee, dog of mine,
Pretty collars make thee fine,
Sugared milk make fat thee!
Pleasures wag on in thy tail,
Hands of gentle motion fail
Nevermore, to pat thee

Downy pillow take thy head,
Silken coverlid bestead,
Sunshine help thy sleeping!
No fly’s buzzing wake thee up,
No man break thy purple cup
Set for drinking deep in….

—from “To Flush, My Dog,” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died on this day in 1861



After attending a production of Rudolf Besier’s play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and then rereading Barrett Browning’s poetry and letters, Virginia Woolf was inspired to write Flush, her “biography” of Barrett Browning’s dog. Woolf’s Flush begins life as an outdoorsy, working-man’s dog, and when first given to Barrett Browning by a friend he has a hard time adapting to the enclosure of an invalid’s bedroom. But Flush appreciates that he has not been cast into London’s slum streets as a common cur, and he soon hears the call of the plush, lap-dog life. Here he and Miss Barrett take dinner:

Miss Barrett gave a little sigh when she saw the plump mutton chop, or the wing of partridge or chicken that had been sent up for her dinner. So long as Wilson was in the room she fiddled about with her knife and fork. But directly the door was shut and they were alone, she made a sign. She held up her fork. A whole chicken’s wing was impaled upon it. Flush advanced. Miss Barrett nodded. Very gently, very cleverly, without spilling a crumb, Flush removed the wing; swallowed it down and left no trace behind. Half a rice pudding clotted with thick cream went the same way….



Maureen Adams’s Shaggy Muses is a portrait of four dog-writer relationships: Barrett Browning and Flush; Emily Brontë and her mastiff, Keeper; Emily Dickinson and her Newfoundland, Carlo; Edith Wharton and her many dogs; and, pictured on the cover, Virginia Woolf and her cocker spaniel, Pinka. 

 

I started Early—Took my Dog—
And visited the Sea—
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me—

And Frigates—in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands—
Presuming Me to be a Mouse—
Aground—upon the Sands….



Go here [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=181379] for the rest of Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog.”