And then there is the remarkable behaviour of the dog. The legend of the fidelity of Gough’s dog is a critical moment in the emotional history of the British and their pets; it was through the lens of this story that Edinburgh’s citizens saw the heroism of Greyfriars Bobby, who guarded his master’s tomb for 14 years after the man’s death in 1858. This is where Romanticism is the parent of Victorianism; and here, sentiment and sublimity go hand in hand. John Ruskin praised Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (1837) – the mourner is a dog – as a great modern painting. And if we laugh at Landseer, the same sentimentality becomes awe-inspiring in Turner’s watercolour Dawn After the Wreck (c1841). Ruskin described how, from a wreck that killed all hands, "a single dog has come ashore. Utterly exhausted, its limbs failing under it, and sinking into the sand, it stands howling and shivering. The dawn clouds have the first scarlet upon them."
But the richest, and for us the most usable, meaning of this story is also the most difficult to comprehend. It is Wordsworth’s transformation of a sad, strange little anecdote into a hymn to nature; his counterfactual declaration that the dog is not simply a hero but the embodiment of natural virtues we human beings have lost. In "Fidelity" he is making a utopian demand: accept the moral grandeur of nature; breathe it, be it, live up to it.
Go for a walk now on Helvellyn and you set out from a car park, on a well-mapped path. The hikers are properly clothed and equipped; you know they will come down without a scratch. No one is silly enough to bring a spaniel. But looking at the majesty of the sun through the woods, the stream tumbling beneath the path, the moss, and the lake of Thirlmere a dark mirror, you begin to understand what Wordsworth, buried in the nearby valley, was on about. "