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Close-up King Charles Cavalier Spaniel

We love our pets! But how do we define their natures? Two poems show us two different ways.

Goodness knows, we love our pets. Just look at how cats– silly, cute, or cuddly– dominate the Internet, followed closely, if not recently overtaken, by lovable, funny dogs.1  We live in close relationship to these animals, but how do we define this relationship? How do we conceive of these beings that seem so much like us, and yet so much their own, not-human kind of special beings? Two famous poems about pets showcase two different ways to regard our intimate animals: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” and Elizabeth Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog.

Gray’s more formal 18th-century poem views the beloved lost cat Selima from the outside, almost anthropomorphically. Her cat-like qualities seem human, her actions something people can observe and learn from. In her 19th-century work, Browning, on the other hand, praises the personal loyalty and love her Flush has for her, but acknowledges from the beginning that she and her dog are different kinds of beings. The poem celebrates Flush but also ponders the nature of the relationship between person and beast. Is the beast really a lower form? If so, what is the nature of their intense connection?

After reading, all you animal lovers can decide which way is closer to your own way of regarding your beloved pets: almost as another type of human, or as a distinctly different kind of creature? Maybe a bit of both? Replies with any thoughts on the topic will be welcome in the comment section!

Walpole's Selima may have resembled this tortoise-shell cat. Her "emerald" eyes fit the description in the poem.

Walpole’s Selima may have resembled this tortoise-shell cat. Her “emerald” eyes fit the description in the poem.

“Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat”

Let’s begin with “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat.” Thomas Gray’s poem was not written about his own pet, but to condole with his friend Horace Walpole (author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto), who had just lost his own favorite cat, Selima. The title of the poem by itself tells us what happened: poor Selima drowned in a tub of water while trying to catch a goldfish. To Selima’s owner, this event would be quite sad, but Gray’s poem, while celebrating Selima’s beauty and charm, seems more witty than grief-stricken. (Walpole was evidently touched by the poem, however, because he had the first stanza engraved on a stand he had made for the goldfish tub, in memory of his lost pet.)

Perhaps because Selima was not his own pet, and because 18th-century poetry was quite formal and often designed to showcase the writer’s knowledge of earlier literary models,2 Gray’s poem is not really about grief and loss, but more of a study about parallels between animal-kind and humankind.

Cat-like Beauties, Human-like Behaviors

First, however, there is a lovely description of Selima’s “cat-ness” in lines 5-8: “Her conscious tail her joy declar’d; / The fair round face, the snowy beard, / The velvet of her paws, / Her coat, that with the tortoise vies, /Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes. . ..” Anyone who has spent much time around cats can testify to the particular cat-ness of these beauties, and to our human appreciation of them. But quickly, Gray renders Selima in human terms popular in that era, calling her “hapless Nymph” and “presumptuous Maid.”

Throughout the sad, dramatic scene of Selima’s fall into the pool of fish, she again seems more cat-like. Fallen and then caught in the tub, “She mew’d to ev’ry watry God, / Some speedy aid to send,” but horribly, none came. Once past this lamentable scene, though, Gray again casts Selima as a human model. Her over-bold misstep in pursuit of false gold can serve as warnings for human “Beauties,” who can learn from Selima that “one false step is ne’er retriev’d,” . . . “nor all, that glisters, gold.”

Selima as Watchword: 18th-Century Meme?

Should we be inclined to blame Gray, or his old-fashioned era, for painting Selima more as human than cat, stop a minute and think about how many viral memes do the same thing. We couldn’t praise or ridicule half of our very human qualities on the Internet if we didn’t describe them in a caption on a picture of some charming animal. And indeed, why can’t we learn something about our human selves through watching our furrier brethren?

Browning was said to have owned an English Cocker Spaniel.

Browning was said to have owned an English Cocker Spaniel.*

Browning: Who is Flush to Me, and Me to Flush?

Turning now to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “To Flush, My Dog,” we see a more personally felt tribute to a pet. That’s not surprising, coming from the pen of the writer of one of the most famous love sonnets in history, “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.” Her love for Flush and her belief in his love for herself shines throughout the whole poem.

In “To Flush, My Dog,” we also see a more complicated and intellectual consideration of the relationship between person and pet than we did in Gray’s poem. Right from the first stanza, the relative status of person and pet are clearly on her mind. She calls Flush “loving friend” and “gentle fellow-creature,” showing a sense of their equality. But she also says Flush has a “lower nature” that seems to have derived some of its extraordinary faithfulness from the dear human friend who gave him to Browning as a gift. She is aware of struggling to understand Flush’s differences from herself. As the poem progresses, she questions whether her fondness for him, her enjoyment of his cute dogginess, might seem too condescending for such a faithful being.

A Loving Tribute to Extreme Faithfulness

Let’s take a closer look at this loving tribute to a special animal. Like Gray, Browning celebrates and cherishes the animal’s physical beauty. But unlike Gray, she describes her dog and his behavior as primarily canine. Though his flowing spaniel “silken ears” remind her of a lady’s ringlets, she always sees a clear line between herself, as human species, and Flush, as canine.

The physical descriptions of Flush are lovely, reminding us that one of the things we do cherish in our pets is certainly their beauty, especially qualities characteristic of their species. Flush’s “silver-suited breast” and “darkly brown” body that flashes gold in the sun, his large hazel eyes, and his “curvetting” leaps paint him as a beautiful animal to observe and to caress.

Character Matters More Than Beauty, in Animal as in Human

But Browning quickly acknowledges that Flush’s physical beauties are not his most praiseworthy qualities. Other dogs might be just as beautiful, but few other dogs could be so faithful and loving. For years, Browning was an invalid confined mostly to her own room, suffering from a lung ailment and complications from a spinal injury. She writes fondly of how most other dogs would have taken any opportunity “in thymy dew / [to track] the hares and followed through / Sunny moor or meadow,” or “Bounded at the whistle clear, / Up the woodside hieing.”

But “[t]his dog watched beside a bed / Day and night unweary, –Watched within a curtained room, / Where no sunbeam brake the gloom,” content just to be petted by the sick woman’s “pale thin hand.” As her only constant, faithful, loving companion, it’s small wonder Browning felt such love for this animal.

How Best to Bless an Animal?

In the next several stanzas of the poem, Browning has some whimsical fun imagining blessings she can wish for Flush as reward for his love, such as pretty collars, special treats for daily food, constant patting, and an end to annoyances like as “buzzing flies” or “whiskered cats.” But even before she starts this section, she proclaims she wants to avoid making fun of Flush in any way: “Tenderly not scornfully, / Render praise and favour!” Then she interrupts her list of whimsical blessings to wonder if her condescending fondness has crossed the line into scorn: “Mock I thee, in wishing weal?—“

Through the whole poem, we can see Browning working to define the relationship between person and animal, especially when it is such a close and loving one. Browning implies that intellectually, she must acknowledge that humans are a “higher” sort of creature than dogs, but this special dog “loves me so, / Better than his kind will do / Often, man or woman.” What is the source and nature of this extraordinary love? At one point, Browning speculates that some of it is infused into her dog’s nature from herself, “Leaning from my Human.” But we’ll see in a minute that she doesn’t rest with that conclusion.

Human and Animal: Going Beyond the “Line”

Intellectually, Browning must acknowledge that Flush is a simple animal, after all, who wants only simple things, unlike a human who needs and aspires to accomplish much more than animals could: “Little canst thou joy or do, / Thou who lovest greatly.” Whatever things will please Flush and are within the scope of his understanding, she wishes for him: “Yet be blessed to the height / Of all good and all delight / Pervious to thy nature.”

And yet she can’t let go of her feeling that this dog’s love seems higher than humans might expect from a simple beast. Here she vows to love her pet “beyond that line, / With a love that answers thine.” Now she is no longer saying that the extra love between them is coming from her “higher” human nature. Instead, its source is Flush, who loves her with a love beyond the line of expected canine capabilities. She is not “leaning from her Human” to love him more; Flush is leaning from his Canine in his greater love for her.

You and Your Pet Today

The idea of evolution and progression of species permeated the Victorian age when Elizabeth Barrett Browning was writing. The idea that animals had “lower” less-developed natures and people had “higher” ones would have been widely accepted at the time. Perhaps this idea is less widely accepted today, when many might say that neither human nor animal is “higher,” just different, each just adapted for different conditions.

Nonetheless, the two ways of regarding beloved pets shown in these two poems are just as widespread today as they ever were. Like Gray, we can view our pets as extensions of ourselves, seeing human-like qualities in them and learning wisdom from their actions to apply in our own human world. Or like Browning, we can see our pets as decidedly different from ourselves. Although capable of refined thinking and great emotional depth, animals are beings with whom we must develop relationships on their own, not human, terms.

What about you? How do you regard your special animals? Please leave a comment to tell us about it!

Pet cat sleeping on man's lap.

Pet cat sleeping on man’s lap. Human like, or not?

1See this article in The Guardian about which pet might dominate the Net right now.

2If you take a look at the editor’s notes on the scholarly edition of the poem here, you can see that Gray alluded to a Dryden poem from 1697, to Homer’s Iliad, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Allusions like these show readers his learning and also compliment his reader, Walpole, who he knows would have recognized them.

*Photo Credits

 Donglow Sir Winston, (dog agility titles MX, MXJ, EAC, EJC, EGC, AD), a red-colored cocker. [Image taken on April 17, 2004, in Dixon, California by Elf. (CC-BY-SA 3.0)]via Wikipedia Commons.

Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.

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