Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review-Shaggy Muses

Everyone knows the famous saying: Dogs are Man's Best Friend.   Most people know that dogs are women's best friend as well.  In fact most really devoted pet owners are women.   Women are more likely to spend large amounts on their dog and according to this article 87% of female pet owners consider their pets family members and 59% would risk their lives for their pet.

Although dogs continue to have an ever exalted role in our society, moving from workers to family companions, women's devotion to their dogs is nothing new.  The book Shaggy Muses is a story of how dogs inspired four of the greatest female writers in history: Virginia Wolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte.   Each women had a very different relationship with their dog and the premise of the book is that the relationships the women had with their dogs influenced their writing.  My two favorite sections where the ones of Elizabeth Barret Browning and Emily Dickinson.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning the famed poet, apparently gained comfort and courage from her small spaniel Flush.  The dog was endless delight to her and first guided her through the heart breaking loss of her older brother from drowning.  Later, Flush helped give her the courage to pursue an unconventional romantic relationship with Robert Browning who was 6 years her junior.  

Elizabeth was already considered an old maid when she met Browning at the age of 39.  Robert and Elizabeth courtship often involved walks with Flush and they frequently mentioned him in their love letters .  When the couple married in 1846 Flush came with them Italy.  Elizabeth gave birth to a son Penn at the age of 43 and she wrote of how the aging Flush enjoyed spending time with the baby. When Flush passed away in his teens.   Elizabeth was truly heart broken, but had the comfort of her  husband and child  to see her through the loss.   A husband and child she may never have had if it weren't for the strength the little dog gave her to pursue her dreams.    Elizabeth wrote this poem about Flush

To Flush

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Loving friend, the gift of one
Who her own true faith has 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
Alchemise its dullness,
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 curveting,
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 blither 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 favor:
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 straitly,
Blessing needs must straiten 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!
Emily Dickinson's beloved dog was not one of the small spaniels favored by most Victorian ladies, but a large boisterous newfoundland named Carlo, a gift from her father.  Much has been written about the poet's solitary existence and it has been speculated that she suffered from a variety of mental health issues including depression and agoraphobia.     However, with Carlo at her side Emily was apparently much braver.   She took long walks with him at her side and visited the home's of friends.    When one of her friends  asked Emily if she was not lonely given her relatively solitary existence, she replied by saying:  "You ask of my companions.  Hills sir-and the Sundown-, and a Dog large as myself, that my Father bought me."
Carlo enjoyed a long life and an especially close relationship with his mistress.  When he passed away at the advanced age of 17, Emily wrote  this simple but heart breaking line in a letter to a friend: "Carlo died./ E. Dickinson/ Would you instruct me now?"
Emily never had another dog and after Carlo's passing she became more  reclusive, spending increasingly more time insider her home writing the reams of poems that would after her death would make her famous.

We thorougly recommend Shaggy Muses to any women, or man, who loves dogs and loves literature.   Its available in print and on the kindle, which is how I read it.  We give it a four paw rating.
My Norbert, a dog nearly as large as myself, and an endlessly faithful companion just like Emily Dickinson's Carlo.


  1. Shaggy Muses sounds like a very interesting read. It is amazing how dogs help people overcome tough situations. That's a great picture of you and Norbert!

  2. Such an informational post! My mom wants to read that book, now! Thank you for sharing this!

  3. This was a lovely post. Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets and her poem Hope is the Thing With Feathers is a favorite of mine.
    Yes our dogs are family and our best friends!

    Nina, Myshka, Sasha, Betsy, Lucy, Phoebe and Lily

  4. Sounds like a wonderful book. I couldn't believe Browning had a dog... and to think, that was probably the reason why she and her husband met.

    It's amazing what dogs can do in our lives... they could change it in a snap of a second.

    Huggies and Cheese,


  5. Great review! This sounds like an interesting book!