Sunday, 15 March 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you don’t want to walk the dog
There are times of sorrow or great hurt when home feels the only safe place to be, and even venturing outside with the dog to the park is frightening, in a world that seems implacably hostile. In these moments, I remember an Emily Dickinson poem that I first discovered as a child. Written in 1862 – the year that she poured out hundreds of poems in the privacy of her room, entering a period of seclusion that turned into an entirely reclusive existence – it begins: ‘I started Early – Took my Dog -- / And visited the sea -- / The Mermaids in the Basement / Came out to look at me – ’
When I first read this poem, I did not know of Dickinson’s reputation for impenetrability, both as the mythic woman in white hidden within her father’s house in Massachusetts, and in her famously difficult poetry. Instead, I imagined Dickinson slipping out at dawn, her dog by her side, to a beach where mermaids beckoned her into the water: ‘… till the Tide/ Went past my simple Shoe -- / And past my Apron – and my Belt/ And past my Bodice – too – ’
Much speculation surrounds Dickinson’s mysterious life (who was the identity of ‘the Master’ she addressed in several passionate letters; what was the trauma responsible for her withdrawal from the outside world?); but few facts are certain. One is that she had a beloved dog, Carlo, a Newfoundland presumed to have been named after a dog in ‘Jane Eyre’, who appears in her poetry and her letters. To the Master, she implored, ‘Could’nt Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour’; and told another correspondent of ‘shunning men and women’ because they ‘embarrass my dog’, describing her companions as ‘Hills – Sir – and the Sundown – and a Dog… They are better than Beings – because they know – but do not tell…”
Whatever else was denied her – or she denied herself – Carlo was loyal to his mistress, who did not replace him when he died, after 16 years of companionship; and I still like to think of Emily Dickinson walking with her dog to the sea, and he keeping her safe from drowning.