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Boggs: A Dog Named Carlo

There are so many important holidays from Thanksgiving to New Year that it’s easy to overlook December 10. But to me, that day’s especially important because it’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday!

I first came across Dickinson when I was a bookish girl who didn’t know how to fit in. Dickinson’s work spoke to me. But I also found her frightening.

I didn’t want to identify with Dickinson because I thought of her as a strange, lonely woman. How odd, that she dressed only in white. How sad, that she sat alone in her chamber, writing poems at a desk that overlooked the main street. With the hemlock hedge not fully grown, the view was often of funeral processions as t he coffins passed her gate on the way to the graveyard.

That’s how many of us know Dickinson, as a nearly mythical reclusive writer. But as with all myths, some things about this story are true. And others aren’t quite true.

Some years ago, I read something that changed how I imagine Dickinson. I found out that Emily Dickinson had a dog. His name was Carlo, he was a gift from her father, and he lived with Dickinson for sixteen years.

In a letter to the writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson says that Carlo was as big as she was. Evidently, the dog loomed large in her life.

The name, Carlo, sounds exotic for 19th century Amherst, but as it turns out, “Carlo” was a common dog name, the way “Lassie” was in the 1950s. Carlo appeared in many stories, and even in books that taught children to read.

One such volume even includes a picture of a dog, and explains:

“C stands for Carlo.
Looking through the bars
Down into the dreary street
‘Neath the twinkling stars.”

Even today, animals teach children to read and rhyme. Animal alphabets are common, with animals illustrating the letters. A little rhyme describes what the animals are like or are doing.

I like to think of Emily Dickinson coming across such books in her formative years. And I like to think of this great American poet learning her craft from Carlo and his friends.

Thinking about Carlo does not change my appreciation of Dickinson’s work. But it adds another dimension to how I imagine this poet. Now, I notice that Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters are alive with animals from cats and roosters to insects, and yes, a dog named Carlo.

Now, the room she sits in seems a bit less lonely, and in my imagination, I don’t picture her sitting alone on her birthday. I imagine Emily Dickinson sharing her loneliness, for sixteen years, with her dog Carlo.