Thursday, April 19, 2018

To Flush, My Dog - Elizabeth Barrett Browning

LOVING friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

Like a lady's ringlets brown,
Flow thy silken ears adown
Either side demurely,
Of thy silver-suited breast
Shining out from all the rest
Of thy body purely.

Darkly brown thy body is,
Till the sunshine, striking this,
Alchemize its dulness, -
When the sleek curls manifold
Flash all over into gold,
With a burnished fulness.

Underneath my stroking hand,
Startled eyes of hazel bland
Kindling, growing larger, -
Up thou leapest with a spring,
Full of prank and curvetting,
Leaping like a charger.

Leap! thy broad tail waves a light;
Leap! thy slender feet are bright,
Canopied in fringes.
Leap - those tasselled ears of thine
Flicker strangely, fair and fine,
Down their golden inches

Yet, my pretty sportive friend,
Little is 't to such an end
That I praise thy rareness!
Other dags may be thy peers
Haply in these drooping ears,
And this glossy fairness.

But of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary, -
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.

Roses, gathered for a vase,
In that chamber died apace,
Beam and breeze resigning -
This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when light is gone,
Love remains for shining.

Other dogs in thymy dew
Tracked the hares and followed through
Sunny moor or meadow -
This dog only, crept and crept
Next a languid cheek that slept,
Sharing in the shadow.

Other dogs of loyal cheer
Bounded at the whistle clear,
Up the woodside hieing -
This dog only, watched in reach
Of a faintly uttered speech,
Or a louder sighing.

And if one or two quick tears
Dropped upon his glossy ears,
Or a sigh came double, -
Up he spring in eager haste,
Fawning, fondling, breathing fast,
In a tender trouble.

And this dog was satisfied,
If a pale thin hand would glide,
Down his dewlaps sloping, -
Which he pushed his nose within,
After, - platforming his chin
On the palm left open.

This dog, if a friendly voice
Call him now to blyther choice
Than such chamber-keeping,
Come out! ' praying from the door, -
Presseth backward as before,
Up against me leaping.

Therefore to this dog will I,
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favour!
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore, and for ever.

And because he loves me so,
Better than his kind will do,
Often, man or woman,
Give I back more love again
Than dogs often take of men, -
Leaning from my Human.

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.

Whiskered cats anointed flee -
Sturdy stoppers keep from thee
Cologne distillations ;
Nuts lie in thy path for stones,
And thy feast-day macaroons
Turn to daily rations!

Mock I thee, in wishing weal? -
Tears are in my eyes to feel
Thou art made so straightly,
Blessing needs must straighten too, -
Little canst thou joy or do,
Thou who lovest greatly.

Yet be blessed to the height
Of all good and all delight
Pervious to thy nature, -
Only loved beyond that line,
With a love that answers, thine,
Loving fellow-creature!

I hold a special place in my heart for poems that extol the virtues of our canine friends, and this magnificent poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures marvelously those best qualities for which we love our dogs.  I have never heard a better phrase to describe a dog than "gentle fellow-creature" or "loving fellow-creature."  The poem beautifully celebrates Browning's own dog, Flush, in both his physical and higher qualities.

Browning spares no detail in describing Flush to the reader.  He has silken ears that flow down like a lady's ringlets, a silver-suited breast, dark brown fur that catches the sun, which "Alchemize[s] its dulness."  What a phrase!  Exposed to sun, the fur will "flash all over into gold, with a burnished fulness."

Browning goes on to describe how Flush can leap and play, but goes on to say, "Yet, my pretty sportive friend,/ Little is 't to such an end/ That I praise thy rareness!"  It isn't because of the dog's physical qualities alone that she praises Flush.  After all, she goes on to say that other dogs may be Flush's equal when it comes to such physical qualities.  What sets Flush apart comes next, and it is the most perfect description of a dog's capacity for emotional sensitivity towards humans I have ever read.

"This dog watched beside a bed / Day and night unweary."  Browning goes on to describe, in beautiful poetic detail, how Flush stood attentive by the bedside of the sick, attendant to every need.  "This dog only, waited on, / Knowing that when light is gone, / Love remains for shining."  Indeed, when it is dark, both physically and metaphorically, a dog's Love is a light that shines bright.

The poem itself is fairly simple if you read it slowly.  While the writing seems more formal than we are used to today, the sentiment is as fresh and relevant as can be.  We love our dogs because they always see the best in us.  Browning even says, "Tears are in my eyes to feel / Thou art made so straightly."  She tears up just thinking about how good dogs are to us.  How can you not, after having read her account of Flush?

As I'm sure it will for anyone who has known the love of a good dog in their life, this poem brought to mind my childhood dog, Clark, who also shared those noble qualities.  If I was sick, he would lay by my bed, doing everything he could to comfort me.  One stanza struck me as particularly relevant to that experience:
"And this dog was satisfied,
If a pale thin hand would glide,
Down his dewlaps sloping, -
Which he pushed his nose within,
After, - platforming his chin
On the palm left open."

I can remember clearly times that Clark would rest his snout on my hand, happy to be held, because he knew it made me feel better.  Dogs are emotionally intelligent in ways we are not, and Browning captures that perfectly in her poem.  I also find myself becoming emotional thinking about my dog.  Though he's been gone for nearly six years now, I knew him for fifteen years, from my childhood until I graduated college.  I think the memory of a good dog will never fade, in part because of poems like this one, which so beautifully capture that special relationship we as humans have with dogs.

And because I love him very much, here's a picture of my childhood dog, Clark.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done! Clark spent many a day comforting me as I battled migraines, laying by my side or sitting at my feet. His was simply put, my best friend. -Dad