Emily Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland Carlo does not appear often in her poems, but it is Carlo Dickinson refers to most often as her great companion in her letters from 1861-1864. The Carlo letters are clustered during the Civil War years, stressful, passionate years that include the horror of war, the Master Letters, and the intense activity of copying and sewing the fascicles. As has been well-documented, Carlo appears in the letters as companion, as surrogate, as Dickinson’s heart, and as a necessary chaperone in a Master Letter from 1861, when Dickinson proposes a reckless rendezvous, made safe by Carlo’s presence: “Could’nt [sic] Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour – and nobody care but the Bobolink — and his — a silver scruple?” The bird as witness and the silver of its scruple make me think of # 861:
Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent —
Gush after Gush, reserved for you —
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
The poem, copied by Dickinson into an 1864 fascicle, has a triumphal tone that almost seems a precursor to her more famous #1072 that begins, “Title Divine—is mine!/ The Wife—without the Sign” copied into an 1862 fascicle.
The fascicles are dated by changes in Dickinson’s handwriting, and Dickinson copied the poems into the fascicles, seemingly not in the order in which she wrote them. What does any of this have to do with Carlo? Mainly that Carlo figures large as a steadying force through the “White Heat” of these years.
Carlo isn’t listed in the subject index of Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Under “dog,” there is only a late poem beginning, “A Little Dog that wags its tail/And knows no other joy,” not a poem about Carlo.
Aside from an early valentine, written when Carlo was just a puppy, Richard B. Sewall identifies Carlo only with #186 that begins,
What shall I do—it whimpers so —
This little Hound within the Heart
All day and night with bark and start —
Though Carlo might stand in for Dickinson’s heart, the Hound is little, and Carlo appears at the end of the poem as a staunch messenger:
Tell Carlo —
He’ll tell me!
I don’t think Carlo is ever little or ever a hound in Dickinson’s poems. To my mind, the poem where Carlo is stated as himself most truly in his role as companion is #520, in an 1862 fascicle. It begins:
I started Early — took my Dog —
And visited the Sea —
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me —
After the first line of the poem, the dog doesn’t appear again, and Carlo is not named. Much has been written about the dog’s absence from the poem when the sea becomes threatening. Still, I see this as the poem where Emily Dickinson defines Carlo’s indispensible role in her life. Without Carlo, Dickinson could not face the sea that represents both terrors and pleasures: the sea she set out on when she couldn’t claim election, the sea that divided her geographically and otherwise from beloved friends, the sea that hid curious creatures and the terrifying gaze of the other, and the sea of sexual longing that threatened to obliterate all boundaries. The sea had to be confronted. The only possible companion for Dickinson on such a visit is the knowing and mute Carlo. Her rambles with Carlo in the hills around Amherst gave Dickinson the freedom of an elsewhere, unburdened by language and the human “Beings” she compares unfavorably to Carlo. His companionship is a portal into the space between words and worlds that allows poems to come. From 1850, the earliest date given any poem in the fascicles, until he died in 1866, Carlo was Dickinson’s familiar, opening doors. In Dickinson’s famous, heart-stricken letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson after Carlo died, she wrote only:
Would you instruct me now?