December 22nd, 2012

Literary Emilys and their dogs

In my mental image of poet Emily Dickinson, dog ownership was never part of the picture. I imagined her dressed all in flowing white, flitting about the upstairs rooms of her family’s spacious Amherst home, sitting down to write amazing poetry and voluminous letters, becoming more and more self-sufficient and less and less willing to go outside as time went on.

A dog never entered into it, I thought. And yet I was quite wrong.

I discovered this when I noticed a poem of Dickinson’s (and video to go with it) at Vanderleun’s blog. The poem begins:

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –

Took my dog?? Visited the sea?? What kind of Emily Dickinson was this, pray tell?

Anyone who knows Massachusetts geography (or who has access to Google Maps) knows that a walk from Amherst to the sea would be one mighty long trek:

Poetic license, I assume; and who better to use it than Dickinson?

But that dog was such an odd detail that it seemed real to me. And sure enough, it was: I figured a spaniel, for which there was a certain vogue back then, but a Newfie named Carlo? Wow; that’s a whole lotta dog. A lot to feed, a lot to walk, a lot to train, a lot to handle (Dickinson referred to Carlo in a letter as “a Dog large as myself, that my Father bought me.”)

A Newfoundland is the sort of dog I could imagine another favorite literary Emily might have—Emily Bronte, she of “no coward soul is mine.” Walking on the moors, wild wind blowing in her hair…

And then I thought it might be time to find out whether Emily Bronte actually had a dog, too, and if so what type. The answers were yes, and a bull mastiff. Bingo! (no, not the dog’s name—that was “Keeper”):

Emily often sat on a rug and used Keeper as a back rest. She sketched pictures of him. And her attachment to Keeper was illustrated in Charlotte’s portrayal of Shirley in the book of the same name about a character based on Emily.

Here is Emily’s sketch of Keeper:

When Emily died of the family scourge tuberculosis (at the age of 30), Keeper—true to his name–was inconsolable:

The accounts of Emily’s funeral all mention Keeper (Garber, 1996). Charlotte wrote that Keeper “followed her funeral to the vault,” and then came into the church with the family, “lying in the pew couched at [their] feet while the burial service was being read”( Barker, 1998, p. 240). According to Gaskell (1975), Keeper “walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion after her death” (p. 269). In her visits with Mrs. Gaskell after Emily’s death, Charlotte…[often] mentioned Keeper sleeping every night at the door of Emily’s empty room, “snuffing under it, and whining every morning” ( Wise, 1980, vol. 4, p. 87).

After reading all of this about Emilys and their dogs, it struck me that Emily Dickinson’s dog Carlo may not only have been one of her closest, dearest, and most direct and uncomplicated relationships, but that the animal’s death in 1866 might have had something to do with her segue into extreme isolation. I’d never read any speculation on this before (have I managed to come up with an original piece of Dickinson scholarship? No; apparently others have trod this way before me), but in checking the dates I see that Carlo died in 1866, and yes indeed (at least according to Wiki), Dickinson, already somewhat housebound, became far more reclusive that year and thereafter:

Around this time [the year 1866], Dickinson’s behavior began to change. She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face. She acquired local notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person.

Dogs tend to get you out of the house, don’t they? Especially large ones that get antsy if they don’t get a lot of exercise.

Although this isn’t about Dickinson or her dog, I find it an extraordinary picture of the poet:

Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life…

When Higginson [a writer for the Atlantic Monthly who was one of long-term epistolary correspondents] urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so that they could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing: “Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”. It was not until [Higginson] came to Amherst in 1870 that they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as “a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair … in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue net worsted shawl.” He also felt that he never was “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

A picture of a quiet and powerful intensity of almost frightening dimensions. No, an itty bitty dog just would not have done for Emily Dickinson:

[NOTE: In his twilight years, Emily Bronte’s father Patrick (who knew the terrible tragedy of having his wife and all six of his children predecease him by a considerable number of years) had two dogs named Cato and Plato.

And just to complete the circle here: Charlotte Bronte’s character Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre had a dog named Pilot who was almost undoubtedly a Landseer (black and white) Newfoundland. What’s more, it is thought that Emily Dickinson’s dog Carlo was named after the dog owned by the character St. John Rivers in one of Dickinson’s favorite books: Jane Eyre again.]

22 Responses to “Literary Emilys and their dogs”

  1. Liz Says:

    Have you read “Lives Like Loaded Guns”, by Lyndall Gordon? You’d probably love it, and it gives a greater sense of Dickinson as a person with friends, and interests, and human interactions than the recluse she’s typically portrayed as.

  2. rickl Says:

    That’s a heck of a “sketch”. Looks like Emily Bronte could have been a notable artist if she hadn’t chosen to be a writer instead.

  3. Don Carlos Says:

    A startling, even scary, microportrait:
    Higginson ‘also felt that he never was “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.’

  4. Sgt. Mom Says:

    It is interesting, though – that writers are commonly supposed to be ‘cat’ people. It is interesting and curious that the Emilies were devoted dog people. It might very well be credible as a theory that Emily Dickenson was kept in the world by her dog.
    I have a number of cats, of whom I am very fond, and they are very, very lovable … but oddly enough, it is the dogs that I have amused myself by putting into my books as characters.

  5. Peter Porcupine Says:

    Somewhere in her letters she says that dogs are better companions than people, “because they know, but do not say.”

    And when her dog passed away, she wrote one of her most striking letters to Higginson: “Carlo died. Would you instruct me now?”

  6. ligneus Says:

    An English poet whose name I forget wrote:

    Jane Austin
    Kept her legs crossed in
    Contrast to Emily Bronte
    Who displayed the full Monte.

  7. Don Carlos Says:

    Sgt Mom:
    Could you expound on your observation “that writers are commonly supposed to be ‘cat’ people”?

    One of the best horror movies I ever saw was “The Cat People”, a Euro B+W from the 1930s, IIRC, I have it on videotape but have no VCR player.

  8. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    }}} I imagined her dressed all in flowing white


    Have you READ her stuff? “Flowing dark GREY” seems far more suitable…


    I grant, we reserve “Flowing BLACK” for Sylvia Plath, but Dickinson, much as I like her, is not what I think of as “upbeat”.

  9. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    P.S., this is irrelevant:
    …she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. …

    Grey suits the imagery far better.

    Yes, my imagination gets to use poetic license when it comes to poets

    Kinda… poetic, innit?

  10. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    }}} IIRC, I have it on videotape but have no VCR player.

    a) I presume you refer to this movie?
    Cat People (1942)

    b) Three options:
    I) Buy a cheap VCR. Yes, they still make them. Prob. 30-40 bucks. Silly if this is the only Video tape you want to watch.
    II) Pay a service to convert it to DVD. Silly given item III.
    III) Get it for under $20 on DVD from Amazon
    Not only do you get Cat People but the sequel and a number of other films by the same producer, Val Lewton, with something from Martin Scorcese about him. Apparently Scorcese thinks well of him.

    Note: ignore the “Shannon Tweed, etc.”, product data — obviously in error — and read the reviews, it’s clear this includes almost certainly the movie you refer to.


  11. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

    Hmmm…. some notes about dogs:

    “I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves.”
    – August Strindberg –

    “Cats are smarter than dogs. You can’t get eight cats to pull a sled through the snow.”
    – Jeff Valdez –

    THIS, I believe, encapsulates a large part of Emily’s approval of dogs as companions (as well as that of many others with similar tastes):

    “The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.”
    – Samuel Butler –

    “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
    – Mark Twain –

    An observation which I believe is relevant to what’s wrong with this society:

    “You know that scene [in ‘In the Line of Fire’] where he [John Malkovich] kills the two women? Well, he [Malkovich] also wanted to kill their dog. But you know, you can’t do this. You can slaughter all the people you want [in a movie], but you can’t kill one dog.”
    – Russell Petersen [the director] –

    When the American husband gets as much appreciative fuss made over him for providing food, shelter, clothes, and education for the family as dogs get for bringing in the newspaper, there will be fewer divorces.

    Dogs come when you call. Cats have answering machines.


  12. SteveH Says:

    I’ve always felt that you could somehow trace the decline of people’s respect and love for their fellow man by paying attention to the rise in stature of dogs just over the last 4 or 5 generations.

    It;s almost like it occured as an artifact of a narcissism that demands relationships be one sided in the judgemental and criticism categories.

  13. White Collar Blog Says:

    Bought A Keep Your Dog A Good…

    […] shelter, clothes, and education for the family as dogs get for bringing in the n […]…

  14. rickl Says:

    “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
    – Mark Twain –

    Which reminds me of this classic Twilight Zone episode.

    It was written by Earl Hamner, Jr., who later went on to create The Waltons. I don’t know whether he originated the story himself or adapted an old folk tale. I suspect it was the latter.

  15. Artfldgr Says:

    thats ok..

    the feds think they have jurisdiction over 6 toed cats of Hemingway through the commerce clause…

    Court Rules Feds Can Regulate Hemingway’s Cats

    the Obama Administration has now taken jurisdiction over the world famous six-toed cats that live at the Ernest Hemingway Museum in Key West.

    For those who thought that the expansive reach of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution had been slowed down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding Obamacare only on tax grounds, think again.

    The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has now sided with the Obama Administration that the Commerce Clause authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate the museum’s cats.

    yes. their applying the commerce clause to anythig they want now…

    and on top of it they are now creating taxes for IMPUGNED monies they would have, if you chose something else.

    so if you act in a way to save money on taxes, too bad, they get the money anyway!!

    In 2009 the museum sued to challenge the federal government’s assertion of jurisdiction over its cats under the Commerce Clause. However, U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez of Miami ruled in favor of the government last year, and the museum appealed.

    keep talking about dead white poets no one cares about except for her feminism… and tons of things..

    in essence, your finding out HOW that funky austrian fellow won. the women kept the conversation on other things as they could not keep it on what was needed to avoid the outcome (they also made given their voting opposition was dead).

    obama has free reign to act and do things and anyone who reads here, will no longer be informed because now the idea is to avoid whats happening by pretending it isnt happening.

    welcome to germany…
    by the time they woke up to the fact that ignoring the new laws and moves and things was HELPING despotism, it was too late…

    this is why they copied… they dont know wh ich part is essential to the outcome, so they try to copy all the details they can. knowing that the same moves will result in the same actions given we live in a principaled reality where that is the rule…

    so, reproduce the cultural and factual points the system repeats what it did before.

    and unless the people step out of that script, which is NOT what is happening here… the end is a fait accompli made by those who didnt want it… and those who did… as niether really opposed it.

    they are playing on your biology.
    with women, when they get the situation in the tough THEY BAIL… ask the men… not the women who look at themselves as mythelogical.

    do you think your opposition is working on emily dickenson and avoiding bad news? or do you think your opposition is right now, using their time to plot against people who dont value life and all they have enough to put down dickenson and defend it?

    now you know why they ALWAYS WIN
    because their competition has biological responses, and so they play on that. so now women have voted this monstrosity in, neutralizing their men as an equivalent to wwi, they want to ignore whats happening and return to their inner world.

    ie. the excursion into the outer world and treating it like the inner world, makes the despot, when the despot finally has enouh power, the women bail, and want to return to their inner safe world.

    so they start to cosset themselves in meaningless distractive drivel….

    the more crucial the time comes the more they avoid the meat and potatoes of it.

    women remember bad news more, so the more bad news, the easier they over load and the more likely they will bail rather than roll up their sleeves and get to it like men.

    so before, when the news of the change was not believed, it could be taken and we talked about it all and the distractions were few.

    now that its real, cant argue the ambiguity, and things are accelerating and there is important stuff for people to learn…

    the women bail…
    its their way of leaving the mess to the men…

    since 1968 and the rise of the matriarchy, how has society gone? nicer or worse? who did they blame so they wont stop?

    obama and company are proceeding on things that we are not paying attention.

    note that after they win, they will erase these white women from history.

    so enjoy your dickenson now…

    becuase failure to defend her society is the send off of her being erased and there will be no more dickenson for anyone else to enjoy!!!!!!!!!!!

    A Russian Translation/Imitation of Emily Dickinson: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”

    Prior to 1981, the Russian reader knew Emily Dickinson only through individual poems appearing irregularly in literary magazines and in anthologies of international poetry. However, in 1981 Khudozhestvennaia Literatura published the former Soviet Union’s first collection of poetry by Emily Dickinson, a selection of some 220 poems, translated into Russian by Vera Markova.

    you dont prevent the dark ages, you dont prevent these things from being destroyed…

    you love ballet, poetry, etc.. the greatest works of the greatest hated race and society of the world?

    you think they will leave anything left of western civ if they win?

  16. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Hi, Don Carlo – I had always read about how writers tended to have cats, since they were quiet, contemplative and relatively low maintenance. Hemmingway had cats by the herd, I think Winston Churchill also was very fond of them.
    There’s a musing on this tendency, here –

  17. Ann Says:

    Steve H said…

    I’ve always felt that you could somehow trace the decline of people’s respect and love for their fellow man by paying attention to the rise in stature of dogs just over the last 4 or 5 generations.

    It;s almost like it occured as an artifact of a narcissism that demands relationships be one sided in the judgemental and criticism categories.

    Could also be people like playing the role of the alpha male, especially women.

    Does this mean we cat people are way more cool because we don’t require the uncritical love and the dominance thing? I can live with that. 😉

  18. Don Carlos Says:

    Thanks; ordered; done.

    To all you cat lovers: I am a dog person. I hunt with my dogs. It is teamwork, the roots of which go back, apparently, to some 20,000 years ago, when man and dog first hooked up.

    A bird dog has a nose a thousand-fold or more sensitive than man’s. The bird-hunting dog covers 5-10 miles to each mile walked by the man hunter. The man hunter selects the terrain to be hunted, steers the dog(s) in their search, makes the kill with the shotgun while the dog on point remains “steady to wing and shot” in our parlance. The dog retrieves, bringing the bird to hand. But as important is dog’s ability to find and retrieve wounded birds. A bird (quail, pheasant, grouse) with a broken wing can outrun any human, but if not found is doomed to turn into coyote food.

    One of my pointers has looked back at me from her point stance, over her shoulder, when I have shot and missed. She is clearly expressing, “I did my job but you failed in yours.”

    These dogs go on our hunts with gladness, almost boundless enthusiasm.

    It is your turn, cat lovers, to tell us what man-cat teamwork regularly and predictably accomplishes. Do your cats accompany you on walks? Do they announce or chase off trespassers? Do they make eye contact?

  19. parker Says:

    Dogs are dogs and cats are cats and horses are horses. We have 2 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 horses. The dogs are slavish companions and they are our early warning system. No one comes near our home unannounced. And, dogs are incessant cheerleaders shouting out how wonderful we are. Cats teach us companionship is important but there are boundaries. Embrace and nurture your inner cat. Horses are beasts of burden with a mind of their own. They are willful but once they learn who is boss they act accordingly. Nothing surpasses the feeling of freedom of cantering across 120 acres of pasture astride an Arabian. Our animals are a part of our lives, not on par with grandchildren, but important to our quality of life nonetheless.

  20. Jan of MN Says:

    Someone said: Dogs have masters, cats have staff.

  21. SteveH Says:

    “”Could also be people like playing the role of the alpha male, especially women.””

    You may be on to something. Which makes me wonder if humans are the only creatures that choose alpha leaders by criteria other than performance and results.

    You’re not going to see a bunch of wolves following a big beautiful wolf that oversees their decline as a pack while trying to convince them them it’s a good overall strategy. Nahhhh. They aren’t that stupid. Just people apparently are.

  22. Don Carlos Says:

    Cats are “contemplative” by their poses, but to assume contemplative thought is actually going on strikes me as projection.

    “Embrace and nurture your inner cat” sounds like leftist feminism to my tin ear. What does it mean?

    “Does this mean we cat people are way more cool because we don’t require the uncritical love and the dominance thing? I can live with that.” Sounds like another thought from the ’70s feminist movement.

    “…the rise in stature of dogs just over the last 4 or 5 generations”? Actually, status has increased but stature (performance) has not. A number of breeds have been reduced in their former abilities, e.g. Cocker spaniels, dacshunds, Afghans, Borzois, Weimeraners, and the list goes on. These breeds have been shaped by women, gays, and the AKC, whose Windsor dog show concentrates solely on cuteness and appearance. As to my claim about women and gays, I have been behing the scenes at major AKC events and the incredible beauty parlor activities going on there; not a place for hetero men.

    The increased status of dogs is pretty much limited to what I call “yip dogs”: small, holdable (like cats) breeds with high-pitched barks, like Yorkies and Toy Poodles, which are carried about and talked to by women like babies, fussed over, groomed daily, beribboned, covered with cute little doggie coats when the weather is nippy, and travel with them in small carriers that fit under airplane seats.

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