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.

19 comments:

kairu said...

I remember when my father was ill, more than ten years ago now, I could not look at him without weeping. The weekend between the diagnosis and subsequent surgery, the house was full of friends, and I couldn't bear to be with them, or in my room with the walls closing in. I would take my dog down to the lake, and sit on the shore with my arms around her, her fur damp with my tears.

There is something about being with a dog that makes you feel safe, standing between you and the edge of the ocean, that in all weather makes you feel like you are standing on the edge of the world.

Justine Picardie said...

Kairu -- thanks for your beautifully observed message. I have been out today in the pale English sunshine, walking my dog through the woods, on what felt like the first real day of spring. The green leaves of bluebells were emerging from beneath the dead leaves on the ground, and I could hear woodpeckers. There's a blackbird singing in my back garden now, as I write, and it's the sweetest sound.

kairu said...

I envy you. I walked (stomped, rather) bitterly to work this morning as wet snow poured from the sky. The only pleasant thing about it was the satisfying splash of my rubber boots through the deep puddles.

But the plum trees are wispy clouds of pale pink flowers, and the crocuses are emerging from their beds of dark mulch, reminding me of one of my favorite childhood books, The Secret Garden. Spring has come.

oxford-reader said...

I've just returned from walking our 3 yr old yellow lab, Bentley, on an evening which was warm enough not to have a coat on and read your post.

I don't know what it is about dogs that make them the perfect companion in times of both laughter and sobs. Our previous dog (a chocolate lab called Morgan) who died four years ago, was my best friend whenever I needed I needed a lift. His place of choice was the top of the stairs, so I would sit on the step below him, and just lean against him. No words needed, just a snuffly dog sound. I still miss him now.

Emily Dickinson confused me when I was at University, but I think I'm coming to understand her better now. I think you need life experience to fully appreciate and know her poetry, because even though she shut herself away from the world, she had astounding knowledge.

Justine Picardie said...

Snuffly dogs and Emily Dickinson -- both enhance the other...

kairu said...

By the way, if you can stand French pop music sung in that breathy, wheezy, asthmatic way, a la Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (I know some people can't bear it), Carla Bruni has a cd of poems by Auden, Yeats, and Dickinson (along with a few others) set to music. It's called No Promises.

Justine Picardie said...

Somehow, I just can't get my head around Carla Bruni singing Emily Dickinson. It just seems so odd, what with Carla in her purple Dior. But this is an irrational prejudice of mine, because I have never actually listened to La Bruni.

Lou said...

I can empathise with what Emily Dickinson felt about her beloved dog.I'm housebound at the moment with a broken foot.My only company during the day(until the children get home from school)is Lola,our beautiful black labrador and my books.Secretly,I quite like having an excuse not to go out.Home is often the only place where you feel you can escape from the harsh realities of life.Not sure if you have read Caroline Knapp's "Pack of Two:The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs".It is all about the author's relationship with her dog ,Lucille,and the pivotal role that her dog played in helping her recover from grief and addiction.I found it a really inspiring book to read when I went through a similar stage in my life. Hope your trip to France went well!

Justine Picardie said...

Lou -- sorry to hear you're housebound, but glad that you've got a dog for company. I'll see if I can get hold of a copy of the book you recommend -- it sounds very interesting. We got our dog, Molly, after my sister died of breast cancer, and she definitely played a part in the family's recovery.

JaneGS said...

Thanks for a lovely post, Justine. I walk my dog almost daily, and her joy and energy and affection never fails to put me in a good groove. I have come to rely on these walks with Dixie so much. My daughter just started reading Dickinson so I'll have to point her to this post and read this poem with her.

Justine Picardie said...

Jane -- how old is your daughter? My mother gave me a copy of a Dickinson anthology when I was still quite young, and oddly enough, I wasn't at all put off by the opacity. There's a chapter about Dickinson (and other women in white) in one of my previous books, "My Mother's Wedding Dress", that your daughter might find interesting.

Kentishmaid said...

The last two years I spent as a live in nanny were full of sadness and heartbreak as the marriage of the children's parents ended. When I was overwhelmed with the situation I would walk the family's Irish Wolfhound down the fields and at times sit and weep. Her head would lie on my lap and she would look at me with such concern and compassion. She sensed the sadness in the house and gave us all so much love. In troubled times a faithful dog can be more of a solace than the dearest friend, their devotion speaks more than words.
A blackbirds song can move me to tears, I love to hear them start to sing again as spring returns.

JaneGS said...

I have two daughters--the younger one is 14 and discovered Dickinson in her lit class last month. She's not a great reader, but she likes what she likes, and she liked these poems. Dickinson shows up in a lot of kids' poetry collections, so all three of my kids have heard some of her poems along the way.

Justine Picardie said...

Jane -- hope your daughter goes on enjoying Emily Dickinson (my younger son is 14, too, and has discovered Seamus Heaney).
Kentish-Maid -- thanks for your lovely message. There was something about it that reminded me of the beginning of a traditional ballad: the wolfhound and the sadness and the solace. Please keep posting here!

simoncadbury said...

the verses are really very beautiful...

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Carmina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carmina said...

well if would be very difficult to read for me then because I like to walk my dog Sildenafil he is so cute and I always enjoy spending time with him!

Star said...

Thanks for sharing this. I really like Dickinson poems those are fabulous, bu the other day I found a book called Cialis and I enjoyed more than walking with my stubborn dog.