Cats in Poetry
Photo by Taking5 (Flickr) see poem in the first comment.
Cats in Poetry goes back a long, long way. It tells us a bit about how people related to the domestic cat centuries before there were purebred cats. Purebred cats are a modern idea. For nine thousand years, cats were simply cats; one type of cat, one species of cat, Felis silvestris catus. As cats are particularly poetic in their athletic movements, to write poetry about them is a natural consequence of our admiration of them.
For copyright reasons I am playing safe and in general I focus on cats in poetry that was written some time ago and which is outside the laws of copyright. I refer to Cat Book Poems in Siamese cat history.
Although I doubt it is one of the first cat poems, to us in the 21st century, it is one of the earliest that we know about, I suspect. It was written by Alalaf Alnaharwany who died in A.D. 930. It is referred to in a book by Helen Winslow called Concerning Cats. The poem concerns the death of the cat companion of Alalaf Alnaharwany. Alalaf loved his cat and was saddened by the cat's death in trying to catch prey.
Chaucer, in the 14th century, also wrote some cat poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 - 25 October 1400) was an English author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat.
Here is his poem written in old fashioned English. I am not an English scholar but it seems that the English of the time called "Middle English" was the beginning of the use of English that has some similarity to modern English. There are some French words in it such as "tendre" and "couche"
This piece of cats in poetry comes from the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's best known literary work and is found in The Manciple's Tale.
Lat take a cat, and fostre hym wel with milk,
And tendre flesh, and make his couche of silk,
And lat hym seen a mous go by the wal,
Anon he weyveth milk and flessh and al,
And every deyntee that is in that hous,
Swich appetit hath he to ete a mous.
The poem describes how the cat was offered all manner of good human food as a meal, which the cat rejects in preference for a mouse!
In a poem by Thomas Gray written in the 18th century the poet uses a heroic style of poetry to describe what was considered a humble animal (I find them heroic however!).
The poem concerns "Selima" a tabby cat, the "Demurest of the tabby kind", who tries to catch some goldfish but falls in and drowns as no one came to her aid. This mirrors the poem I mentioned above by Alalaf Alnaharwany.
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Thro' richest purple to the view
Betray'd golden gleam.
She mew'd to ev'ry watry God,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd.
The poem continues with a moral for women! This was very much a male dominated world at that time.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes,
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all, that glisters, gold.
The moral could equally apply to men of course.
The next piece of cats in poetry that I will refer to has been described as "probably the greatest cat poem in the (English) language,...",1
It was written by Christopher Smart, an English poet who lived 11 April 1722 - 21 May 1771. His poem is about his beloved cat "Jeoffry". The poem is, Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb). He wrote it while in an hospital being treated for insanity. Jeoffry was his only companion. The poem was first published more than 100 years after his death. Mr Smart was not insane judging by his poem, but in those days less was known about mental health.
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 to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
(this seems to be describing Jeoffry being turned on by catnip or a catnip-like (musk) substance!).
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it ti give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
(this tells of the classic cat greeting before scent exchange. I talk about this in passing here: The social function of tail up in domestic cats. Christopher Smart gets it wrong when he describes Jeoffry playing with a mouse that he has preyed upon. I explain this phenomenon here: Domestic Cat Hunting!).
Then Christopher Smart describes Jeoffry's nighttime antics:
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life...
..and then how cats are important to us (remember this was almost 250 years ago):
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Eygpt.
For evey family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede...
For by stroaking of him I have found electricity.
For I have perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
(this relates, it seems, to the idea of equality of cat and human in the eyes of our creator).
Finally a piece of cats in poetry by T.S. Elliot, Macavity: the Mystery Cat
Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw--
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!
Macavity, Macavity, there's no on like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air--
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!
Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square--
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!
He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair--
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!
And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scap of paper in the hall or on the stair--
But it's useless of investigate--Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
"It must have been Macavity!"--but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibit, or one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place--MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
1. Kieron Winn to whom I am indebted for his article in The Cat Magazine August 2010.
If you like cats in poetry consider buying Christopher Ricks's book Joining Music with Reason, which contains ten of Dr. Winn's poems: