Thursday, March 5, 2009

English poets and their English cats - also, a hare, and a tortoise

Thinking about literary animals, I have wandered into 18th century England, when the poets either had cats, or wrote about them, or both. Here's Thomas Gray, for example, writing about Horace Walpole's cat, Selima:

"Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause."

That's from "Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat" (1748), and the cat is peering into a "tub of goldfishes" (hence the reflection), so you can see where this is going. The only phrase that looks to me like an original description of a cat is the "conscious tail"; otherwise, its just a catalogue description.

Christopher Smart does a lot better, in the justly famous "My Cat Jeoffry" section of Jubilate Agno (written 1759-63, published 1939):

"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself."

Then follow the ten steps of Jeoffrey's self-grooming, not so different from what a ethologist might write: "For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. \ For fifthly he washes himself \ For Sixthly he rolls upon wash." Then there's the consummate description of a cat: "For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery." I find Smart's poetry very difficult, in general, but this is real observation.

I always assume that William Blake's "fearful symmetry" and so on in "The Tyger" is based as much on an actual housecat as on an imagined tiger, but I don't really know. Who else is there - oh yes, Samuel Johnson's Hodge, who "shall not be shot," but I don't know of a poem about Hodge.

William Cowper could hardly have kept a cat, since it might have endangered his prescious hares. In the third book of The Task (1785), after denouncing hunting, Cowper writes:

"Well, - at least one is safe. One sheltered hare
Has never heard the sanguinary yell
Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.
Innocent partner of my peaceful home,
Whom ten long years' experience of my care
Has made at last familiar, she has lost
Much of her vigilant instinctive dread,
Not needful here, beneath a roof like mine." (lines 334-341)

But there is not much real account of the hare in The Task, unlike in Cowper's "Epitaph on a Hare" (1783):

"His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near."

Well that's odd. There's another 18th century English critter who behaves similarly, Gilbert White's tortoise:

"No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner." (Letter XIII)

Now that's the kind of writing I like, the tortoise who behaves like a fine lady. I actually have not read White's The Natural History of Selborne (1789). I encountered the tortoise in an anthology, although I have no idea which, or of what (here?). White was a pioneering naturalist, a genuine scientist, so he falls into a different category than Gray and Cowper and so on. I think that's where I'll wander tomorrow.


  1. Thank you for your speculation about William Blake's cat as "inspiration" for THE TYGER. My long familiarity with (and my struggles with) Blake's work suggest to me that his "inspirations" were very much hidden in his singular mind (i.e., some would say his psychotic mind). Then, with genius as the essential catalyst, the creative artist's explosive originality manifested itself in all sorts of ways. Some of the results are nearly impenetrable in spite of their apparently transparent whimsy. (Much as Christopher Smart and his Jubilate Agno.) At any rate, I shall have to give more thought to the cat theory.

  2. This puts the "Cat vs. Dog" debate on a whole new plane... Most interesting. I too like the idea of "The Tyger" as based on a house cat. And as sad as it is to admit this, the word "hare" still amuses me today as much as it did when I was seven. And I'm still not sure why...

  3. Well, Blake certainly had no trouble pulling his ideas from the far off empyrean, so I wouldn't want to lean too hard on this. But that poem does remind me of an actual cat.

    As for cats vs dogs, the official position of Wuthering Expectations is to judge each animal as an individual, and to judge them by their deeds.

  4. I love the gravity and waggery description. So true! Cats can be so serious and elegant one second and then do something unbelievably stupid the next.

    And very diplomatic answer on the do v cat issue ;)

  5. As the sentiment builds in favor of cats (and their place in literature and lives), we would be remiss if we didn't take time to acknowledge T. S. Eliot;s OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS. As the catalyst for the Broadway spectacle (which is an inferior species about which we need give no more notice here), Eliot's playful, poetic musings are wonderful diversions.

  6. I think one needs to include Lewis Carroll in the discussion of 19th century writers, off-beat inspirations, works that may or not have been intended for children that have become children's lit. and cats. It's no Jabberwocky or Mock Turtle, but I always found the Chesire Cat most disturbing.

  7. I have a cat named Jeoffry. Like Smart's Jeoffry, he kept me from going crazier while in prison.

  8. Jeoffry the Prison Cat would be a good name for a children's book. Or a rockabilly band.

    Was this "prison" also known as "graduate school"?