Dog Days

Dog

We’ve had a dog as houseguest for the past few days while her owners disport themselves in Portugal – quite an old dog now, a little doddery and pretty set in her ways but still fine company. This means that the Librarian is rousted from her bed at an unearthly hour to share with me the joy of walking to the park before sunrise, clutching small black bags, a torch and pockets full of dog treats.

During the very hot summer of 1925, the poet Charlotte Mew spent some time in a cottage near Rye, in Sussex, with Alida Munro, the wife of Harold Monro, poet, proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop, and publisher of The Poetry Review, Poetry and Drama and The Chapbook. He also produced, at his own expense, volumes by several poets, including both Pound’s Des Imagistes and the Georgian Poetry anthologies. After his death a few years later, Pound wrote: ‘I doubt if any death in, or in the vicinity of, literary circles could have caused as much general regret as that of Mr Harold Monro’.[1] The Monros went through a succession of weekend cottages, in Essex and Hampshire as well as Sussex.[2] ‘All of them had earth closets and well-water, and had to be adapted to the needs of six dogs and a cat. Harold Monro, meanwhile, was often abroad, seeking cures for what Alida called “the enemy” though she also felt that the continent, where wine was sixpence a bottle, was “not the place to fight such a battle”.’[3]

Six dogs. One, two, three. . .But this can only recall Beatrix Potter’s tale:

Flopsy-Bunnies

‘Mr. McGregor climbed down on to the rubbish heap—
“One, two, three, four! five! six leetle rabbits!” said he as he dropped them into his sack. The Flopsy Bunnies dreamt that their mother was turning them over in bed. They stirred a little in their sleep, but still they did not wake up.’

Do dogs in literature outnumber cats? A glance at the index to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations suggests that they do – by quite a margin. Walking with dogs, hunting with dogs, playing with dogs in ways that are impossible with cats—it seems likely enough. Certainly dogs in literature, as in life, fill many roles. Roger Grenier includes one in his title, begins with a reference in his preface to Odysseus’ dog Argos—who recognises his returned master as several people who know him signally fail to do—and opens with the story of how, ‘A few years ago, whenever a tourist visited Paul Valéry’s famous oceanside cemetery at Sète and asked the caretaker to show him the location of Paul Valéry’s tombstone, the caretaker would wake up his dog and give the command, “Valéry!” Whereupon the dog, all on its own, would lead the tourist to the poet’s grave.’[4]

Familiarity with canine expressions, characteristics and perceived associations with both social classes and individuals, are also fertile ground. In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Gerald ‘turned in thought to confident English country, days like the look in a dog’s eye, rooms small in the scope of firelight, neighbourly lights through trees.’[5] In Henry Green’s novel Nothing, Mrs Haye considers whether it would not be kinder to have Ruffles, the old, blind dog, put down: ‘Yet he had been such a good servant, for ten years he had barked faithfully at friends. And the only time he had not barked was when the burglars had come that once, when they had eaten the Christmas cake, and had left the silver.’ Almost immediately afterwards, when the aged retainer William comes in, ‘carrying one of the silver inkstands as if it had been a chalice’, the same sentiments are rehearsed. William is so old and feeble that he can barely do his share of the work. ‘But what could one do? He had served her for years, he had been a most conscientious servant, and it was only the night when the burglars did come that he had been asleep. However, they had only eaten the Christmas cake, they had left the silver.’[6]

Kipling-TSAD

‘Thou good and faithful servant’. Rudyard Kipling made good use of dogs in several of his stories while the 1930 volume, Thy Servant a Dog, contained three stories told from the dogs’ point of view. Collected Dog Stories (1934) gathered them all.

In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Norah claims not to believe in churches and parsons but accepts God, not believing that he ‘minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[7]

Just so, Ford Madox Ford remembered his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, ‘laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile. Never lend money: always give it. When you give money to a man that is down, tell him that it is to help him to get up; tell him that when he is up he should pass on the money you have given him to any other poor devil that is down. Beggar yourself rather than refuse assistance to any one whose genius you think shows promise of being greater than your own.”’ Ford adds: ‘This is a good rule of life. I wish I could have lived up to it.’[8]   To a surprising degree, he did.

Then too, while authorial comment may be frowned upon, a fictional dog can be persuaded to stand in for its creator. In Patrick White’s story, ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker, so noisily ‘doing good’ all over the place, in fact does immense harm. But when, at the end of the story, she tries to attract a blue cattle-dog, offering to allow it ‘every licence’ if it will come home with her, ‘the dog turned, and lifted his leg on the suppliant, and walked stiffly off.’[9] I think ‘stiffly’ is the indispensable word there.

Our period of stewardship ends soon. There will no longer be the unwavering scrutiny of my every move in the kitchen; urination and defecation will not be quite so prominent in my thoughts; I shall feel a little disorientated for a while, leaving the house without reaching for the dog’s lead, the bags and the treats; and the Librarian will stay in bed a little longer.

 
References

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘Harold Monro’ (1932), in Polite Essays (1937; New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 3.

[2] Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 209.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew And Her Friends (1984; London: Flamingo, 2002), 209.   Fitzgerald tried for years to interest a publisher in a book on The Poetry Bookshop but never succeeded in doing so.

[4] Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), vii, 1.

[5] Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (1929; Collected edition, London: Jonathan Cape, 1948), 123.

[6] Henry Green, Nothing (1950; in Nothing, Doting, Blindness, London: Vintage Books, 2008), 382-383.

[7] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 318.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197-198.

[9] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 188.

 

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