A Short Analysis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘To Flush, My Dog’

On Barrett Browning’s wonderful dog poem

‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, they say. But one hopes that in this case, as the old jest has it, ‘man embraces woman’, and that what the anonymous author of this proverb had in mind was the close bond between dogs and humans, whether men or women. Flush, the name of the cocker spaniel belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61), was clearly a close friend of his poet-owner, and Barrett Browning penned this lovely poem about her beloved dog.

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!

‘Like a lady’s ringlets brown, / Flow thy silken ears adown’: this couplet reminds us that it was common for writers to liken beautiful, elegant women to spaniels, as references in both Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, among many others, attest. It’s significant that Barrett Browning depicts Flush as feminine in this way: rather than emphasising the ‘masculine’ qualities of dogs, she dwells on the more delicate and ‘ladylike’ side to Flush.

But having praised Flush’s sleek brown fur and delicate ears, Barrett Browning strikes at the heart of what makes her dog such a rare and treasured companion: his loyalty: ‘This dog only, waited on, / Knowing that when light is gone, / Love remains for shining.’ Sticking with the Brontë sisters, we might recall the stories of how Emily’s dog, Keeper, followed her coffin to the grave when she died and, for weeks after, moaned and howled outside her bedroom door. Loyalty is a dog’s best virtue. Not for nothing was ‘Fido’ the name of choice for dogs for centuries, neatly encapsulating their most prized quality: fidelity.

And this fidelity was important to a poet like Barrett Browning, who, as a lifelong invalid, saw the value in having a companion that would wait by her bed, keep her company when she was housebound, and understand what it’s like to be an ‘outsider’ among the human race. Flush was a gift to the poet from her friend and fellow writer, the author Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855), who had met Barrett Browning in 1836.

After he had been the subject of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s wonderful paean to him in ‘To Flush, My Dog’, Flush would later feature in one of the weirdest and funniest works of modernist literature, Virginia Woolf’s ‘biographical’ novel, Flush (1933). But that’s another story.

Discover more about the Brownings with our analysis of Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, our short overview of Browning’s life, and our thoughts on Barrett Browning’s most famous poem.

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