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Featured Poem: To Flush, My Dog by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Written by The Reader, 5th December 2011

We’re continuing to show our appreciation for animals; in particular, those ones that we know best – owing largely to their domestication – and who we’ve made our very own close companions. Last week it was all about commending the feline form (unfortunately, we won’t quite have time to pay homage to the incredibly vast range of pets out there – hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes, even insects - though rest assured, we do love them all. Well, some perhaps more than others…); this week we’re turning towards our unfailingly faithful four-legged friends: we could only be talking about dogs. In all shapes and sizes, from puppies that are boundless balls of energy to the older ones that have been slowed down but are more than happy to sit reliably at our side chewing on a bone, every precious pooch and happy hound is a cherished one.

It does seem to be the case that here in the UK, we have a special affinity with our canine cohorts (I confess to being a little bit biased in this instance, as I am most definitely a dog lover); indeed, one of our national symbols is the rather grumpy looking but dependable and big-softy deep down British Bulldog - when you combine those qualities, it’s almost too accurate that the bulldog should stand to represent the general character of the country. And of course, there’s the undeniable and particularly endearing fact that we just love an underdog (although top dogs are entirely welcome too). The dog was the first animal to have quite literally come into our homes; our relationship with them dates back over some 10,000 years and the bond between hounds and humans is one forged long before any other, becoming ever stronger and certainly with no sign of being severed. The title of ‘man’s best friend’ could surely not be seriously contested by any other creature on earth. Dogs are not only very good friends to poets but also have proven to be their muses in quite a few cases. A great number of poets have produced carefully crafted odes dedicated to dogs; some are enough to bring forth a tear from even the most resolute eyes - thinking in particular of The Power of the Dog by Rudyard Kipling, Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron and Fidelity by William Wordsworth, all deeply emotional pieces which are testament to the love and everlasting loyalty dogs provide.

For all the named and anonymous dogs in literature, there is perhaps one that is more famous than all the rest – almost as famed as its literary owner. Flush was a cocker spaniel given to Elizabeth Barrett Browning by author and fellow dog lover Mary Russell Mitford as a gift to relieve the grief Elizabeth felt at the death of her beloved brother in 1840. Flush certainly performed this task well – the poem in particular showing to great effect his patience, quiet comfort and affection. He was not only decorated in this eponymous poem – which many dog owners will find mirrors their own experiences with much-loved mutts – but in another sonnet, Flush or Faunus, was mentioned in letters by both Elizabeth and her future husband Robert Browning (with Robert making reference to Flush during the couple’s courtship) and eventually would have a whole book written about him by Virginia Woolf. Proof that every dog really does have its day.

To Flush, My Dog

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 dogs 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 sprang 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 arointed 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!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

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