Nice to see Emily’s dog, Carlo making an appearance in one of her poems. Something about the idea of Emily and Carlo hanging out makes me feel good, as in it seems fitting her closest friend would of course be a dog. And I believe that the dog is the “He” in this poem, and that his “bowing” is how a dog who is playing hunkers down excitedly, perhaps as he barks at the sea.
Perhaps what she is describing here is how even the simple friendship of a dog can save a person, that friendship doesn’t necessarily have to be between people (or God) for it to be meaningful.
The first stanza speaks of a whimsical adventure where the speaker and their “Dog” go for a walk on the beach and while it seems at first that the “Mermaids” are looking at her, it’s also possible the “Dog” senses them too. Dogs have keen senses and when you take them to the beach (or really anywhere) they are nearly overwhelmed with sensory input, but they also lack the understanding of what things are the way we do and so for them it’s not a stretch that what they sense under the water might as well be a mermaid. Thus there is a sense that the speaker is not only describing what they imagine is under the waves, but also what the “Dog” might be imagining, too.
The second stanza seems to keep up this blending of the fantastical with how a “Dog” might be imagining the world (if you could ask them). Here the “Frigates” are not just crewed by deck “Hands”, but the ships themselves seem to be alive, as if the ships are waving back to shore because they are living things. From a dog’s point of view it would all be the same, ship and man, and the dog would gladly bark back as if to wave too. I also love how she’s playing with the word wave and the waves of the sea without once having to use the world. Finally, the “Mouse” might be of special interest to the “Dog” since some dogs are keen to catch small animals, so perhaps the “Dog” has run off on its own adventure leaving the speaker to watch the sea.
Which leads into the third stanza where the speaker lets the tide come up bast their “Shoe”, then their “Apron”, then “Belt”, and finally the tide rolls in all the way up to their “Boddice”. Why does the speaker not move? Do they want to drown? Or are they unable to move because their “Dog” is not currently with them because they have run off to catch a “mouse”? If we think of this tide as the troubles of life that sometimes seem to want to drown us, then these troubles seem unconquerable when we are alone and have no friend to help us with them. And in the fourth stanza when the speaker has been pulled under water (perhaps there was a strong riptide / undertow) they seem resigned to their fate that they will be consumed, until they “started” because something has come along to save them.
In the fifth stanza the “Dog” reappears by the speaker’s side – “I felt His Silver Heel” – and with his gentle mouth he nips at the speaker’s “Ancle” (ankle) as if to pull the speaker back to shore and to safety. Then, once back on shore – “the Solid Town” of the sand / beach – “The Sea withdrew” as the “Dog” barks at it, head down playfully but alert, as if he’s barking at the “Mermaids” or the “Frigates”. The “Dog”, because he is a fearless companion, has saved the speaker from the troubles that had been consuming them because the “Dog” is a perfect friend, a friend who does not judge or complain and who will always be by your side when you most need them.
When you’re having a bad day, your dog will cheer you up seems to be what EMily might be saying here, and it’s a wonderful poem.