Near this Spot
Are deposited the Remains of
Who possessed Beauty without
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
So wrote George Gordon, Lord Byron in his epitaph for his beloved canine companion, Boatswain, who died in 1808 and is buried at the Gordon manor estate of Newstead. The celebrated Romantic poet was only one of many artists, writers, and luminaries who owned and loved the gentle giant of the purebred dog world, the Newfoundland.
Newfs or Newfies, as their owners affectionately call them, are large working dogs originally bred and used as working by fishermen in Newfoundland, where the breed developed in the 16th century. Black, brown, or black and white (called Landseers) and weighing up to 180 pounds, these dogs are known for their giant size, intelligence, tremendous strength, calm dispositions, and loyalty. Excellent family dogs and wonderful with children, they
also excel at water rescue, carting, and other draft work. This temperament and talents have made them the subject of many stories and legends.
The 19th century British painter Edwin Landseer is perhaps most famous for his depictions of these noble beasts. A member of the
Royal Academy, Landseer immortalized the black and white variety
of Newfoundland, that ultimately came to bear his name. His works
did a great deal to contribute to the mythology surrounding the breed. Among his most famous images are Saved and Off to the Rescue, which
pay tribute to the Newf’s water rescue skills. In the former the dog stands protectively guarding a young girl whom he/she has pulled from the sea without any other apparent human assistance. The Landseer’s eyes are raised heavenward as if imploring some divine grace, and the entire effect is at once sentimental in that quintessential Victorian manner and yet strangely noble and inspiring. The 1920 portrait of the
Earl of Dudley’s Newf, Bashaw, shows the dog poised on a beach ready to answer the call for help.
It was the Landseer companion of the author J. M. Barrie that inspired the playright’s depiction of Nana in Peter Pan. Barrie owned two large
dogs, Luath, his Newfoundland, and Porthos, his St. Bernard. Inspired by the Newf’s legendary affinity for children and its gentle protectiveness, he chose Luath as the model for Nana in Peter Pan. Nana serves as the Darling children’s nurse, watching over the boys and Wendy and keeping them from harm. Barrie hints in the play that Nana provides the family, who are in straightened circumstances, with a means of economizing
by fulfilling admirably a human role. Barrie describes Nana as a “prim Newfoundland,” while Mrs. Darling calls the dog “a treasure.” In the novelized version of his play, Peter and Wendy, Barrie writes about Nana’s guarding the window where the strange boy, Peter Pan, has appeared, her giving Michael a bath against his wishes, and her accompanying the children to school, even carrying an
umbrella in her mouth when rain is predicted. In the original 1904 stage version, Peter Pan, Barrie had an actor in a furry suit play the dog, and this has become tradition. On one occasion Luath, himself, made an appearance in a matinee performance, taking the place of the actor assigned to play Nana. Barrie recalled that the audience did not even seem to notice the substitution – a testament either to the actor’s skills or the dog’s anthropomorphic nature.
Sir Walter Scott counted the Newfoundland Mungo among his pets. And Scottish poet Robert Burns owned a Newf also named Luath – his taking his namesake from the mythical Cuchullian in the poet Ossian’s Fingal. Burns’ Newf became the inspiration for the herding collie featured in his poem Twa Dogs.
When she lived in Brunswick, Maine, where she wrote Uncle Tom’s
Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe owned a black Newfoundland named Rover, on whom she based the character of Old Bruno. In one of her children’s stories she describes Rover as a faithful and indispensible family member:
He formed a part of every domestic scene. At family prayers stretched out beside his master, he looked up reflectively with his great soft eyes and seemed to join us in the serious feeling of the
hour. When all were gay and singing and frolicking and games were going on, Rover barked and frisked in higher glee than any. At night it was his joy to stretch his furry length at our bedside, where he slept with one ear on cock for any noise which might be his business to watch and attend to.
Regrettably Rover was poisoned by some malevolent townsperson, and the Stowes mournfully buried him with the family plot.
Another New Englander to be fast friends with a brown Newfoundland dog was poet Emily Dickinson. Carlo, as she named her “shaggy ally,” had been given to her by her father Edward Dickinson in the fall of 1849 with the intention that the dog would
accompany Emily in her walks through the woods and fields of Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily chose the name “Carlo” from her then favorite novel,Jane Eyre, in which St.John Rivers owns a pointer of that name. From 1850 onward, she mentioned the dog in several letters and poems. In I Started Early - Took My Dog, she recounts a rambling seaside adventure with Carlo where the sea seems to menace the
poet, but ultimately the tide withdraws as they approach the town. The sense of having Carlo, a water rescue dog, beside her adds to the notion of the Newf’s protector status. Indeed, after Carlo died at the ripe old age of seventeen, Emily curtailed her walks and became increasingly reclusive.
A neighbor recalled Emily’s having said to her after Carlo’s death in 1866, Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first person to come
and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful old friend Carlo. Emily Dickinson’s “mute confederate” served as a bosom friend, and she summed up her love for Carlo and all canines by saying, Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.
Newfoundlands practiced their devoted loyalty and uncannily wise yet gentle protectiveness of their humans not only on land, but also at sea. Prized as water dogs because of their double insulated coat, webbed feet, powerful jaws and musculature, Newfs were favorite companions of sailors, fisherman, lighthouse keepers, and those who ventured upon
the sea. Perhaps the most famous story of an heroic water rescue by a Newf is that of Rigel and the Titanic. Contemporary accounts, embellished by legend tell the story of the ship’s First Officer William McMaster Murdoch’s having brought aboard the doomed vessel his beloved black Newf. Murdoch died in the sinking, but Rigel managed to swim away. The dog searched the waters for some time, presumably for
his owner, and then swam close to one of the lifeboats, circling the craft for three hours in the icy waters, barking for help. When the Carpathia approached in the pitch-black night, the lifeboat was drifting perilously close under the bow of the ship, where it stood the risk of being run down. The exhausted survivors in the lifeboat were too weak to cry out, but Rigel intensified his barking and caught the attention of the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Rostron, who ordered the engines stopped
. All the survivors of Lifeboat # 4 were pulled to safety, as was Rigel, who was hauled up into the large vessel by means of a canvas sling fashioned by one of the sailors, in some accounts said to be Jonas Briggs. in others John Brown. Rigel appeared none the worse for his long ordeal; the Carpathian sailors took him below, and after the Carpathia brought the survivors to New York the next day, the dog was adopted by his sailor rescuer.
This story was first reported in the New York Herald on April 21, 1912, giving Briggs as Rigel’s new owner. Many subsequent contemporary accounts surfaced with some of the details changed, thereby giving rise to questions of authenticity. There was reportedly no crewmember named Jonas Briggs on the Carpathian; there was a passenger in the lifeboat named John Brown, who was reported by some to have adopted Rigel and eventually brought the dog to live out his days in
Scotland. Others questioned why the dog would not have been returned to Murdoch’s wife Ada or at least mentioned to her in the letter informing her of her husband’s death.
But more recent interviews with grandchildren and family members of the Titanic survivors, confirm accounts by Carpathia officers of
hearing the barking of a dog that alerted them to the lifeboat, and John Brown, Master at Arms’ granddaughter specifically recalled Brown’s telling her about pulling the Newf from the water and of deciding to adopt him and take him back to Scotland. In her account, she said her grandfather assumed the dog belonged to one of the Titanic’s drowned officers, did not know whom, and never knew the dog’s name, referring to the Newf only as “Captain.”
Fact or fiction, Rigel has clearly become the inspiration for legend and myth. There are animated videos, children’s books, and numerous websites and retellings of the story. And perhaps that is simply testimony to the kind of admiration, love, and loyalty the Newfoundland can inspire. Did Rigel actually exist and help rescue the Titanic lifeboat? Perhaps we shall never know definitively, but what
those of us who have lived with and love Newfs do know is that the tale is not implausible.
Newfoundlands throughout history are renowned for just such feats as Rigel is reported to have achieved, and today, the instinct is kept alive through judicious breeding and through the American Kennel Association’s program for water rescue training, If you want to be amazed at the sheer courage, strength, and endurance of these dogs, attend one of the annual water dog trials that certify the animals at different levels of excellence. The dogs begin by retrieving simple
objects and swimming prescribed distances; they progress to tasks that include bringing a life preserver to a drowning victim, diving from a boat into the water – even swimming under the boat, if necessary - to search for, locate, and haul an unconscious victim to shore, and pulling with a rope in its teeth an entire rowboat with as many as four people within to the shore.
Courage without Ferocity, as Lord Byron puts it, as with his customary acerbic wit, rails against mankind who frequently lack the canine virtues:
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,
Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth.
Arrogant, bold, flamboyant, and self-absorbed as he was in life, George Gordon, Lord Byron was none of these things to Boatswain. When the faithful Newf contracted rabies, the poet nursed him lovingly through his last days without ever considering the risk of being bitten. To the poet, Boatswain had been his cherished companion, and Byron concludes his Epitaph to a Dog with this tribute:
To mark a friend’s remains, these stones arise:
I never knew but one – and here he lies.