More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
See an index of This Month in The Atlantic's History.
From the archives:
"Strays" (January 2000)
A poem by Stanley Plumly. (With Audio).
"The Truth About Dogs" (July 1999)
Recent explorations into the field of canine genetics are changing the way we think about man's best friend—"man's best parasite" may be more like it—and could help us repair the damage done by a century of inbreeding. By Stephen Budiansky
"So Long to Bad Dogs" (May 1997)
Animal behaviorism is an infant science, but it has dramatically changed the way many dog owners understand their animals.
By Mark Derr
"Barking Up the Right Tree" (January 1996)
A night on the heels of America's premier female coon hunter.
By Burkhard Bilger
From Atlantic Unbound:
"The Animal Point of View" (December 9, 1998)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview, Stephen Budiansky discusses his book If a Lion Could Talk.
The Atlantic Monthly | March 1917
sometimes think that our relations with our children, or our pets, are successful because we expect nothing in return. Yet, after all, the relations are reciprocal; and I have been thinking today of some of the things I have got from an old dog who has been in our family for years and years. I have learned several spiritual truths from her, and I have learned them more thoroughly, perhaps, because she never had the slightest idea that she was teaching me anything. Dogs, of course, show various characteristics—some are snobs, others take naturally to a low life, others again are aristocratic and reticent and self-controlled; but I have never known a dog yet that you could describe as exactly a moralist.
"Not agile any longer, she has become a privileged parlor guest, for the stairs are too much for her. Sometimes she even finds it impossible to bury a bone, and then she goes through the pantomime of burying it. She knows we know she hasn't really done it. Her assumption of achievement is ludicrous. Who says dogs haven't a sense of humor?"
by Richard B. Kimball
Viola came to us out of the primeval woods with an effect of apparitional beauty. Rather a poetic name for a dog, perhaps; but there was such a union of grace and timidity, such a charm of silken draperies and russet ruff and tail almost sweeping the ground, that we were irresistibly reminded of a Viola we had seen recently. It was as if the dog had said mutely, 'What should I do in Illyria?'
She had evidently been through a terrible experience. A broken rope was around her neck; she was as gaunt as a wolf; her eyes were almost iridescent with terror, like the wonderful eyes of some hysteriacs.
Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
We didn't adopt Viola; she adopted us. She followed us to the tent where we were spending the summer, and there she stayed with us, to remain on guard when we were away, to welcome us on our return with such a show of abject gratitude. I don't think a male dog could have shown such a union of love and fear; her spirit had evidently been broken; it became our task to lure her confidence back again—and here began my own education. If I spoke with—well, decision—to my wife, poor Viola slunk to the ground. She thought the tone was meant for her. I would never claim to be a model husband, but I did learn from Viola, theoretically at least, that one can have good manners even in the privacy of the family circle.
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes!
More rapidly than we could have expected, Viola's terrors left her, and she resumed the normal canine outlook on life, like humans I have known who have managed to counteract the false starts of their early childhood—obsessions regarding dark closets, snakes, or an avenging Deity.
I am not going to dwell on the intelligence Viola manifested after she had freed herself from fear. All dogs are wonderful, even when they are not intelligent. The most stupid dog I know mopes around the house and refuses to eat whenever his master is away, thus evincing an emotional sensibility more valuable than the smartness of the most Frenchified of poodles that ever trod the vaudeville stage. Unlike a collie of my acquaintance, Viola did not keep the woodbox replenished; nor had she a vocabulary of several hundred words, like another collie that I know. Still, she had an aptitude to learn spelling. When it was inadvisable to take her out for a walk, we spelled the words, vainly trying to conceal the fact from her, as we would from a child; and often, to this day, people stop me on the road, and ask if I am the owner of the dog that knows how to spell.
What I want to dwell on is my own education rather than Viola's, and this began in earnest after we had moved to the real country, and lived in a little farmhouse without any farm. Viola was a lovely ornament to the dooryard; but it seemed a pity that there were no flocks or herds to evoke her ministering care. We didn't even keep chickens; we were ostensibly in the country to cultivate thoughts,— such as they were,—and while Viola might be said to inspire thoughts, they hardly gave her the necessary exercise. A collie should have a run of ten miles every day, and it was pathetic to see Viola lying in the dooryard, ears erect, eyes eager, watching, waiting, hoping for something to happen. I should not be surprised if her very eagerness attracted the thing she longed for.
Our next-door neighbor, a man fully as fond of dogs as myself, was early attracted to her. He had recently lost his own dog, and asked if he might borrow Viola to help him catch his chickens, and if she might accompany him on the long drive he took every day through the countryside. With perfect good will, and in utter innocence, I consented. Little did I dream, as they say in the novels, of what lay before me.
I had an idea that Viola would understand that she was merely loaned for these expeditions; that she would come back from them with undiminished loyalty, grateful to me for having given her a chance for exercise. But our friendly neighbor had a very taking way with dogs. Aside from the wonderful trips, which were enough to turn the head of any collie, he knew how to talk dog-language better than I did. He knew how to pinch a dog's ear in the most seductive manner. With him, doggishness was both an art and a science.
There was nothing lovelier than the sight of Viola rounding up the chickens, shepherding them into their houses, holding down a recalcitrant pullet with her paw, or bringing in her mouth a dowager hen to her foster-father. If I had the gift of a sculptor and wished to carve a personification of pride, I think I should depict Viola bringing in a chicken—her tail aloft, like a plume of triumph, her eyes shining, stepping over imaginary obstacles like a high-menàge horse with an air of dignity that was really ludicrous. If an unlucky chicken got away from her, away she went across meadows, and over walls, her beautiful voice vibrating through the landscape, sometimes breaking to an octave higher in her excitement.
It was fun to see her scour the wagon when her new master took her out to help him pick up eggs. It was charming to see her come home sitting on the seat beside him, tired but still eager, looking to right and left, sniffing the air, learning all sorts of smell secrets which are closed forever to our supposedly superior human consciousness. Is it any wonder that it was necessary for me to go next door to get her, and that she followed me along the path with a certain droopy air that was hardly flattering?
There is not much in the literary life that would interest an outdoor dog. I felt somewhat like a dry-as-dust professor married to a young and attractive wife who is being taken to all the parties throughout the neighborhood by a disgustingly youthful and handsome cavalier. I know nothing quite so shriveling to the soul as jealousy, nor anything so hard to fight against. I reasoned that Viola's expeditions were doing her good, that I ought to be grateful for them, and I repeated the antediluvian fallacy that my jealousy was only indicative of my love. Nothing that I could say to myself made any difference; and if I were in danger of forgetting how I felt, there were plenty of other persons to remind me.
'Well,' said the fishman, 'I guess you don't know whether that dog is yours or Lysander's!' And my most intimate friend remarked genially, 'If I had a dog, I'd want it to be my dog, or I wouldn't want to have any.'
It was bad enough to bear the sympathy of the community; it was worse to witness the triumph of my rival. Often, after I had brought home the drooping Viola, Lysander would follow after her. Instantly she revived like flowers in water. She smiled, she was even coquettish. They began a lengthy conversation I could not understand—little sounds from him, little grunts from her. If, by any chance, through a belated sense of duty, she happened to remain beside my chair, he surreptitiously snapped his fingers and made little sucking sounds that he fancied were inaudible, and then she sidled over to his chair.
If jealousy is an index of one's love, it is strange that the more jealous I became of Lysander, the less I loved Viola. 'Well, let her stay with him,' I said to myself. 'I guess he won't object to having me pay the license.'
She did stay; she sometimes stayed all night; and few things in my life have been more humiliating than my visits to get her.
Lysander was glad to see me, oh, my, yes! He welcomed me with a crooked sardonic smile that I understood thoroughly. Viola knew just as well as he did why I had come, and pretended to take an interest in the wall-paper. As we walked home along the path, I scolded her, and she slunk to the ground and asked my pardon. Was there anything in her life that could make her conscious of any evil? Of course not. Without realizing it, I was exercising a sort of spiritual coercion over her. I was really condemning her for what was a true expression of collie life; but she accepted my suggestion of evil. I have often wondered since, how many persons in the human realm are suffering from a sense of sin as false as hers was. Of course, I did not philosophize the situation at the time. I simply felt disquietude when I was with her. This disquietude increased rapidly until I apparently disliked her; and I suppose that in my feeling for her there was actually an element of hate.
'Very well,' I said to myself in effect, 'there are better dogs in the world than ever were licensed. The next one I get, I'll keep for my very own.'
I had now reached my low spot—a centre of indifference; and if this were fiction, the reader might expect an ever-increasing objective crescendo from this point onward, culminating in a stirring climax. Possibly Viola would rescue me from a burning building, thus showing that she really loved me, after all. Unfortunately I am dealing with facts of a rather intangible nature. I have noticed that in life coffee and pistols for two are not called for so often as in literature. We pass the time of day with an acquaintance, discuss the play, and what not, little dreaming that behind that smiling exterior a spiritual crisis may be taking place.
My crisis was rather interesting because it seemed almost physical. Not so much in the subconscious brain ganglia as in the sympathetic nerve centres, the process was taking place—the reverse process of what had taken place during my period of jealousy. I could hear a spiritual clicking going on inside me, as if I were composed of children's blocks which had become disarranged and were being replaced in a symmetrical pattern. One by one, the filaments of possession were being broken—that sense which in its grossest terms is really a sort of fatuous pride. Say what we will, most of us feel that we deserve praise and tribute for having selected so attractive a wife, for having begotten such charming children. Having no longer any more of proprietary interest in Viola than in the wild flowers, or the sea, or sky, I got a fresh eye on her. I could not help admiring her, and I could not help admiring her for herself alone. Having no longer any taint of possession, it was impossible for me to impose my will on her, so I adopted unconsciously the courtesy one shows to some one else's wife.
'Well, Viola,' I would say, 'do you want to come home tonight? You don't have to.'
She would look up and listen, cock her ears, consider the matter. Sometimes she would decide to stay with Lysander, and sometimes, strangely enough, she would decide to go home with me. If she came, she came happily, because she was exercising the prerogative of an independent creature. Her sense of sin or shame left her; and somehow we were all gainers, Lysander, Viola, and myself. He no longer snapped his fingers or made little sucking noises. These had been psychical reactions from my jealous emanations when we were struggling for Viola's favor; but we were now united in doing what we could to make her happy; and our friendship, which had suffered previously, in this new office became confirmed. What expansive talks we had about her! How he rushed over to tell the latest example of her wisdom or affection; and when one expects nothing from a dog, it is rather pleasant to feel suddenly, while struggling with a sentence, a damp delightful nose inside your hand.
Sometimes I fancy that Viola, in forming her friendship for Lysander, had a prevision; for the time came when we had to leave her, and in whose hands could it be better to leave her than in Lysander's and his wife's?
Most dog stories end with the death of the dog, but I can assure the reader that Viola is still very much alive. Not agile any longer, she has become a privileged parlor guest, for the stairs are too much for her. Sometimes she even finds it impossible to bury a bone, and then she goes through the pantomime of burying it. She knows we know she hasn't really done it. Her assumption of achievement is ludicrous. Who says dogs haven't a sense of humor?
She is beautiful as old ladies are beautiful. If she wore a lace stomacher, she would make a magnificent Rembrandt—rich browns, tawny gold, and, in the heart of the picture, the spirit of her personality as mellow and pervasive as a flame.
I don't see Viola often nowadays, but what I gained by renouncing a purely personal interest in her has extended itself somehow beyond what we know as the realm of time and space. This sounds rather esoteric, but what I mean is that I am very happy whenever I think of her, whether I am with her or not. I feel very near her though we are separated by a hundred miles, and I should not be surprised if, in the ruffled 'Woof! Woof!' of her dreams, she often lives again what I happen to be thinking of at the moment—wonderful runs with Teddy, the cocker spaniel, or the homeric combat with the woodchuck beside Simon Brook.
As I sit thinking of Viola, there happens to come into my mind, by one of those odd associations that have so little logic in them, an apparently trivial incident that took place a day or so ago. A couple of little girls stopped me on Arlington Street, Boston, and asked the way to Marlboro Street. It chanced that I was going to Marlboro Street myself, and I offered to conduct them there, but they were walking in the leisurely way of children, taking in everything on the way, and I soon outstripped them. At the corner of Marlboro Street, however, I turned and waved to them to indicate that this was the street they wanted, and they waved back to show that they understood.
That was apparently the end of the incident; but two or three blocks up Marlboro Street, something impelled me to turn. The children had found the street, they were following safely, they were evidently watching me; for as soon as I turned, they waved again. As I went up the steps of the house where I had an appointment, I looked back for the third time. The children, now become almost fairy-like figures, were still watching me. Up went their hands and up went mine, and across the long length of city street, we waved in greeting and farewell.
I don't know why the incident should have seemed to contain an element of real beauty. I was reminded of George E. Woodberry's poem in which a somewhat similar incident is celebrated. A boy, you remember, while playing, ran heedlessly into the poet, and the poem ends,—
It was only the clinging touch
What struck me even more than the beauty of my adventure was the quality of permanence that it seemed to wear. In my under-consciousness, there was something immortal about it. Can it be possible that our casual relations, where love is,—our relations with children, or with strangers whom we shall never see again, or with the lower animals whose span of life is necessarily very limited,—can it be possible that these relations are less ephemeral than we think? Would it be too much to hope that the relation between Viola and myself is a small but permanent addition to the store of worthwhile things?
Of a child in a city street;
It hath made the whole day sweet.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1917; Viola's Lovers; Volume 119, No. 3; page 387.