Nonfiction > Carl Van Vechten > The Tiger in the House > Chapter Eleven
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964).  The Tiger in the House. 1922.
  
Chapter Eleven
The Cat and the Poet
  
IN that remarkable volume in which Cesare Lombroso attempts to prove that all men of genius are tainted with insanity he makes a complete case against Charles Baudelaire. The charges are that he wrote three poems about cats. But if three poems would put the poet of the “Fleurs du Mal” in Bedlam, Madame Deshoulières, who wrote more than a dozen, Heinrich Heine, Joseph Victor von Scheffel, Raoul Gineste, and Oliver Herford would have to be strait-jacketed and given the water cure! Why, one might ask the learned professor, were he still alive, is it any more evidence of insanity to choose puss for the subject of a rhyme than a mountain or a man, not to speak of a Greek vase or a skylark? And doubtless the good doctor would lay a portentous finger on his lip and ejaculate a ponderous and all-knowing “ah!” which might settle the question so far as he was concerned, but which might leave us in some doubt as to the validity of his preposterous conclusions. But these men of science, in their valiant attempts to prove something, stop at nothing. “They show a want of knowledge that must be the result of years of study,” Oscar Wilde once sapiently remarked.   1
  Poets, I believe, are more closely in touch with the spirit of grimalkin, the soul of a pussy-cat, than either prose writers or painters. They should be, because poets are mystics, at least the great poets are mystics, speaking like the oracle or the clairvoyant, words that come, of which they themselves may not even understand the meaning. And the poet knocks at gates which sometimes open wide, disclosing gardens to which entrance is denied to those who stumble to find truth in reason and experience. Faith is needed to comprehend the cat, to understand that one can never completely comprehend the cat.   2
  Puss rambles in and out of verse from an early date. Doubtless Babylonians, Zends, and shaggy Patagonians wrote poems about the cat. She appears in Greek poetry and early Persian. Lope de Vega is reported to have celebrated her bewildering beauty and Saadi refers to her in his “Gulistan.” Tasso indited a sonnet to her. One Domenico Balestieri in 1741 published in Milan a volume entitled “Tears upon the death of a cat,” 1 in which two hundred and eighty-five pages in several languages are consecrated to the memory of a single tabby.   3
  English poets have not neglected the cat; nor on the whole have they been unkind to her, but generally they have been quite content to describe her as a hunter of rats and mice and birds, as a fireside companion, or as a plaything. By a curious irony the cat denotes the commonplace as often as she does the mystic. She is the complement of the peasant’s hearth and the shop-keeper’s friend, just as surely as she is the astrologer’s apprentice and the familiar of the pythoness. Goldsmith strikes this common chord of C major when he writes:
        Around, in sympathetic mirth,
  Its tricks the kitten tries;
The cricket chirrups on the hearth,
  The crackling fagot flies.
Robert Herrick sounds the same harmony:
        A cat I keep,
  That plays about my house,
Grown fat with eating
  Many a miching mouse.
Another example from this writer is prettier:
        Yet can thy humble roof maintaine a quire
  Of singing crickets by thy fire;
And the brisk mouse may feast herselfe with crumbs,
  Till that the green-eyed kitling comes.
   4
  Even Gautier and Heine, to whom cats were something of a religion, 2 devoted passages in their poems to the domestic possibilities of puss.   5
  Seldom, indeed, until recently at least, has there seemed anything mysterious about the cat to the English poet; to his unobservant eyes she has appeared as matter-of-fact an animal as the cow or the dog, although differing in external appearance and character from either. It is only in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century that cat-worship has been revived in England and that the strange complexities of her occult nature have come to be admired again.   6
  One of the earliest of the English bards, John Skelton, treats her harshly, but he is writing a poem about a sparrow. Naturally, therefore, he calls down vengeance.
        On all the whole nacyon
Of cattes wylde and tame;
God send them sorowe and shame!
That cat especyally
That slew so cruelly
My lytell pretty sparowe. 3
   7
  Chaucer writes:
        For whoso woldè senge a cattès skyn,
Thenne wolde the cat wel dwellen in hir in;
And if the cattès skyn be slyk and gay,
She wol nat dwelle in housè half a day.
But forth she wol, er any day be dawed,
To shewe hir skyn, and goon a-caterwawed.
   8
  The characters of Shakespeare frequently allude to the cat, but none of them seems to be her friend. We can bear
        A harmless necessary cat,
which is not entirely a gnostic view, from Shylock, and Antonio’s
        For all the rest,
They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk,
in The Tempest has become a commonplace of English speech. Lady Macbeth says,
        Letting I dare not wait upon I would,
Like the poor cat i’ the adage,
and the picture of feline caution is an accurate one, but Romeo cries,
                Every cat and dog,
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
which is paralleled by the remark of Cornelius in Cymbeline,
        Creatures vile, as cats and dogs,
Of no esteem.
We may at least be glad to find dogs included in this diatribe. Lysander shouts at Hermia:
        Hang off, thou cat, thou burr: vile thing, let loose!
And Bertram says of Parolles in All’s Well:
        I could endure anything before but a cat, and now he’s a cat to me,
and later:
        He is more and more a cat,
and again:
        He’s a cat still.
It is only in Macbeth that one gets a portent of the mystery of the cat; only in Macbeth that Shakespeare seems to realize the relation of puss to the occult.
        Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed
is the line that saves Shakespeare.
   9
  Pope refers casually to the practice, prevalent then as now, of leaving money to cats, in the line,
        endow a college or a cat.
  10
  George Tuberville wishes he were a cat so that he could protect his mistress from mice:
        The Mouse should stand in Feare,
  So should the squeaking Rat;
All this would I doe if I were
  Converted to a Cat.
  11
  The fabulists, of course, regard all animals from the moral point of view. Under the circumstances the cat may be said to come off well. In Edward Moore’s fable, “The Farmer, the Spaniel, and the Cat,” the dog complains because the cat is given food:
        They only claim a right to eat,
Who earn by services their meat.
Whereupon, in the very best Rollo book style:
        I own (with meekness Puss reply’d)
Superior merit on your side;
Nor does my breast with envy swell,
To find it recompens’d so well;
Yet I, in what my nature can,
Contribute to the good of man.
Whose claws destroy the pilf’ring mouse?
Who drives the vermin from the house?
Or, watchful for the lab’ring swain,
From lurking rats secures the grain?
From hence, if he awards bestow,
Why should your heart with gall o’erflow?
Why pine my happiness to see,
Since there’s enough for you and me?
 
Thy words are just, the Farmer cry’d,
And spurn’d the snarler from his side.
Gay wrote three fables about the cat and in two of them, “The Rat-catcher and the Cats” and “The Man, The Cat, the Dog, and the Fly,” he treats of puss from the same utilitarian point of view. But in “The Old Woman and Her Cats,” in which he touches on the subject of witchcraft, he plunges a little deeper into his theme:
        A wrinkled Hag, of wicked fame,
Beside a little smoky flame
Sat hov’ring, pinch’d with age and frost;
Her shrivell’d hands, with veins embossed,
Upon her knees her weight sustain,
While palsy shook her crazy brain:
She mumbles forth her backward pray’rs,
An untam’d scold of fourscore years.
About her swarm’d a num’rous brood
Of Cats, who lank with hunger mew’d.
Teas’d with their cries, her choler grew,
And thus she sputter’d: Hence, ye crew.
Fool that I was, to entertain
Such imps, such fiends, a hellish train!
Had ye been never hous’d and nurs’d,
I, for a witch, had ne’er been curs’d.
To you I owe, that crowds of boys
Worry me with eternal noise;
Straws laid across, my pace retard;
The horse-shoe’s nail’d (each threshold’s guard);
The stunted broom the wenches hide,
For fear that I should up and ride.
Tabby’s reply is the wail of all the cats of the middle ages:
        ’Tis infamy to serve a hag;
Cats are thought imps, her broom a nag;
And boys against our lives combine,
Because, ’tis said, your cats have nine.
  12
  In Peter Pindar’s “Ode to Eight Cats” the poet wishes he too were a cat for somewhat the same reason that Walt Whitman exalts the animals, because they do not need lawyers and preachers and furniture. While these stanzas are, like so much of English verse concerning puss, purely external, they have humour and a certain limited kind of observation and as they are not to be found in the other cat books or anthologies I will quote them here, omitting the four moralizing verses:
         
AN ODE TO EIGHT CATS
Belonging to Israel Mendez, a Jew
 
  SCENE: The street in a country town; Time: Midnight; The poet at his chamber window.
 
Singers of Israel, O ye singers sweet,
  Who with your gentle mouths from ear to ear,
Pour forth rich symphonies from street to street,
  And to the sleepless wretch, the night endear!
Lo, in my shirt, on you these eyes I fix,
Admiring much the quaintness of your tricks!
  Your friskings, crawlings, squalls, I much approve;
Your spittings, pawings, high-raised rumps,
Swelled-tails and Merry-Andrews jumps,
  With the wild ministrelsy of rapturous love.
 
How sweetly roll your gooseberry eyes,
As loud you tune your amorous cries,
  And loving, scratch each other black and blue!
No boys in wantonness now bang your backs,
No curs, nor fiercer mastiffs, tear your flax,
  But all the moonlight world seems made for you.
 
Good gods! Ye sweet love-chanting rams!
How nimble are you with your hams
  To mount a house, to scale a chimney top,
And peeping from that chimney hole,
Pour in a doleful cry, the impassioned soul,
  Inviting Miss Grimalkin to come up:
 
Who, sweet obliging female, far from coy,
Answers your invitation note with joy,
  And scorning ’midst the ashes more to mope;
Lo! borne on Love’s all-daring wing
She mounteth with a pickle-herring spring,
  Without the assistance of a rope.
 
Dear mousing tribe, my limbs are waxing cold—
  Singers of Israel sweet, adieu, adieu!
I do suppose you need now to be told
  How much I wish that I was one of you.
  13
  No feline poem is better known than Thomas Gray’s “On the death of a favourite cat, drowned in a tub of gold-fishes,” but Gray again only deals in externals. “Demurest of the tabby kind,” the pensive Selima is drawn with the broadest strokes. The poem is graceful but it can be said of it that it scarcely scratches the surface of the subject of cats. William Cowper’s two cat poems, in one of which there occurs a catastrophe 4 much like that around which “The Bride of the Mistletoe” is built, are still external but they, too, are very pleasing. The picture of the kittens playing with the forked tongue of the viper is charming and “The Retired Cat” almost tastes of the mystic flavour. There is something intensely feline in the description of the poet’s cat:
        Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty watering-pot;
There wanting nothing save a fan,
To seem some nymph in her sedan,
Apparell’d in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to Court.
One of Matthew Prior’s poems to a cat is a version of the Aesop Fable which relates the story of the cat who was changed into a woman by Venus. His “Lines on a Reasonable Affliction,” which Graham R. Tomson includes in her collection, scarce refer to the cat at all. I certainly shall not linger over the sentimental and silly verses which Rumpelstilzchen and Hurlyburlybuss are alleged to have written to Robert Southey. No cat, it would seem, could write so ill. Nor need one stop to admire Tom Hood’s verses, “Puss and Her Three Kittens.” But Joanna Baillie seems to have been trembling on the verge of the discovery of the psychic nature of the cat. In her poem she describes a kitten at play with exquisite felicity and she asks:
        Whence hast thou then, thou witless Puss,
The magic power to charm us thus?
Is it, that in thy glaring eye,
And rapid movements we descry,
While we at ease, secure from ill,
The chimney corner snugly fill,
A lion darting on his prey?
A tiger at his ruthless play?
Wordsworth sings of a “kitten’s busy joy.” Shelley was surely not inspired when he wrote his lines on an esurient cat and Keats’s sonnet, in the nature of a query to his cat, is very unimaginative. The poet is content to ask how many frays puss has fought, how many rats and mice he has captured. A subtler artist would have sought more occult information, asked concerning the temples of the Nile and the Witches’ Sabbath, asked of Cardinal Wolsey and the Archbishop of Taranto, asked of Victor Hugo and Madame Deshoulières and the doors of Isaac Newton. 5 Landor reasons with his Chinchinillo in the matter of pigeon-slaughter, apparently with small result:
        I doubt his memory much, his heart a little,
And in some minor matters (may I say it?)
Could wish him rather sager.
This from the man who spoiled a cook and a bed of violets simultaneously! C. S. Calverley’s “Sad Memories” are an impertinent invasion of the sacred arcane mysteries of the cat mind, about which the poet, of course, proves that he knows nothing. We need not pause over Tennyson’s verses, “The Spinster’s Sweet-arts” but pass on to the modern writers who, it would seem, are more conversant with the mystic essence of the cat than their earlier brethren. 6 Mr. A. C. Benson, to be sure, falls in with the dog-lovers in his apostrophe to the panther of the hearth:
        Cold eyes, sleek skin, and velvet paws,
You win my indolent applause,
  You do not win my heart.
We really must go back to Matthew Arnold, for it is in his picture of Atossa that the cat enters her great period in English poetry. Here the poet almost achieves a French understanding of the cat:
        Cruel, but composed and bland,
Dumb, inscrutable, and grand;
So Tiberius might have sat,
Had Tiberius been a cat.
Mr. Swinburne’s
        Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
    Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
is perhaps a little sentimental, but Richard Garnett’s “Marigold” is magnificent:
        She moved through the garden in glory, because
She had very long claws at the end of her paws.
Her back was arched, her tail was high,
A green fire glared in her vivid eye;
And all the Toms, though never so bold,
Quailed at the martial Marigold.
But no other English poet, it seems to me, has so well sounded the depths of cat nature, so well suggested the soul of the mystic mammal, as Graham R. Tomson (Mrs. Rosamund Ball Marriott-Watson) in her three verses. The plea to the puss in another world:
        Nor, though Persephone’s own Puss you be,
Let Orcus breed oblivion—of me,
is irresistibly appealing; so is the description in “Arsinoë’s Cats”:
        A little lion, small and dainty sweet
    (For such there be!)
With sea-grey eyes and softly stepping feet.
The sonnet to the Chat Noir is Baudelairean in its harmonies, and although like the others, it has been often quoted, I make no apology for reprinting it:
        Half loving-kindliness and half disdain,
  Thou comest to my call serenely suave,
With humming speech and gracious gestures grave,
  In salutation courtly and urbane:
 
Yet must I humble me thy grace to gain—
  For wiles may win thee, but no arts enslave,
  And nowhere gladly thou abidest save
Where naught disturbs the concord of thy reign.
 
Sphinx of my quiet hearth! who deignst to dwell
  Friend of my toil, companion of mine ease,
  Thine is the lore of Ra and Rameses;
That men forget dost thou remember well,
  Beholden still in blinking reveries,
  With sombre sea-green gaze inscrutable.
William Watson’s “great Angora … throned in monumental calm … immobile, imperturbable,” too, sticks in the memory.
  14
  American poets do not all come off very well in their cat poems. Bret Harte’s “Miss Edith’s Modest Request” is not inspired; it might have been written by anybody for any newspaper. Nor can I find much to delight me in the “Two Cats” of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, although the lady herself was a passionate felinophile. Her mother treated cats rudely and used to throw them out of doors at night. Little Ella protested: “Put him out a-walkin’, mama, put him out a-walkin’.” Somewhat later in life Mrs. Wilcox (then Miss Wheeler) wrote a song called, “Mother, Bring my Little Kitten.” “It was supposed,” Mrs. Wilcox explains in her priceless book, “The Worlds and I,” “to be a dying child asking for her pet, which she feared she might not meet in heaven. It was mere sentimental stuff, of no value, of course. But the ‘Funny Man’ on the Waukesha Democrat (I think that was the paper) poked much fun at me, and said I ought to follow my song with another, ‘Daddy, do not drown the puppies.’” Mrs. Wilcox took the suggestion as a cat laps milk and published the new poem in one of the Wisconsin papers. The refrain ran as follows:
        Save, oh, save one puppy, daddy,
  From a fate so dark and grim—
Save the very smallest puppy—
  Make an editor of him.
Mrs. Wilcox adds that her brother Ed liked these lines better than any others she ever wrote. I am inclined to believe that Ed exhibited excellent literary judgment.
  15
  However I do not wish to speak unkindly of journalistic verse. I found the following stanzas by Miriam Teichner in a newspaper and, as they touch a phase of our subject not elsewhere dealt with in this volume, I should like to reproduce them. Any one who has eaten in these restaurants (and which of us has not?) will recall
         
THE TABLE D’HÔTE CAT
 
Now are we come on troublous times,
So I will sing unruffled rhymes.
This one is written, hoping that
The table d’hôte-ish pussy cat,
That creature base and unrefined,
Will for the nonce, distract your mind.
 
Imagine lives (the cat boasts nine)
Spent in the flow of thin red wine!
See where the cocktail-sired bon mot
Inspires the luckless beast with woe.
Hedged in a brush of table legs,
See how she dodges, skulks and begs
For chicken bones, or thin and pale,
The sardine’s limp anaemic tail.
 
It’s wrong—all wrong. That cat should be
Out scouring alleys, blithe and free,
A tiny lion, jungle wise,
Or dreaming with ecstatic eyes
Before a homey hearth. But here
In this too hectic atmosphere
How must all life seem stale and flat!
Pity the table d’hôte-ish cat.
  16
  In “Feline Philosophy by Thomas Cat,” Walter Léon Hess in fifty “caterwauls” has written a long epic in free verse. There is little about the cat in these pages, however; Thomas tells the sordid story of his masters. But the following lines have point:
        How lucky to be a cat
Free to accept or—refuse
What is offered!
  17
  Oliver Herford’s drawings are perhaps more important than his verses, but he occasionally writes some very charming lines. This paraphrase, for example, is delightful:
        Kittens, you are very little,
  And your kitten bones are brittle,
If you’d grow to Cats respected,
  See your play be not neglected.
 
Smite the Sudden Spool, and spring
  Upon the Swift Elusive String,
Thus you learn to catch the wary
  Mister Mouse or Miss Canary. 7
The ending is quite terrible:
        But the Kittencats who snatch
  Rudely for their food, or scratch,
Grow to Tomcats gaunt and gory,—
  Theirs is quite another story.
 
Cats like these are put away
  By the dread S.P.C.A.
Or to trusting Aunts and Sisters
  Sold as sable Muffs and Wristers.
“The Whole duty of Kittens” should be engraved in every kitten’s mind:
        When Human Folk at Table eat,
  A Kitten must now mew for meat,
Or jump to grab it from the Dish,
  (Unless it happens to be fish).
And this puts the question very neatly:
        To Someone very Good and Just,
  Who has proved worthy of her trust,
A Cat will sometimes condescend—
  The Dog is Everybody’s friend.
  18
  One of the most celebrated of the German poets devoted many of his poems to cats, a great many more than the three that Baudelaire wrote to prove to an Italian pedant that he was crazy. And the eccentric German Jew seems to have been attached to the little animal. I have found a description of the poet’s days in the garret of his uncle: 8 “The only creature living there being a fat Angora cat that was not especially given to cleanliness and that only rarely with her tail wiped the dirt and cobwebs away from the old rubbish that was stored there.… But my heart was still in the bloom of youth.… Everything appeared to me in a fantastic light, and the old cat herself seemed to me like a bewitched princess, who might perhaps suddenly be set free from her animal shape, and show herself in her former beauty and splendour.… But the good old fancy times are over; cats remain cats.”  19
  Another German poet, Joseph Victor von Scheffel, has made Hiddigeigei, the Tom Cat, one of the principal figures of his long poem, “Der Trompeter von Säkkingen.” Aside from his dramatic and philosophic importance in this romance, Hiddigeigei has thirteen songs. A restaurant in Capri has been named in his honour.  20
  But it has remained for the French poet to capture the grace, the idle charm, the magnificence, and the essential mystery of the cat; and the French poet has seldom failed to do so. The fabulists, to be sure, have not been so unerring. However, they have followed the folklore suspicion that the cat is a hypocrite and a successful rogue rather than the English fabulists’ idea that puss is a Sunday School teacher. In Florian’s Fable of the “Two Cats,” the lazy old matou says to the lean laborious tom,
        Va, le secret de réussir,
C’est d’être adroit, non d’être utile
  21
  This may be true. Florian’s more celebrated Fable concerns the “Cat and the Mirror.” After puss has examined both sides of the glass in an effort to find the other cat he settles back, quite satisfied.
        Que m’importe, dit-il, de percer ce mystère?
  Une chose que notre esprit,
Après un long travail, n’entend ni ne saisit,
  Ne nous est jamais nécessaire. 9
This is true feline philosophy.
  22
  La Fontaine makes the cat out a monster, a rogue, a Till Eulenspiegel, but he has been praised for doing so. “Observe,” writes M. Feuillet de Conches to Champfleury, “how thorough is La Fontaine’s knowledge of the cat. Rominagrobis is not Rodilardus. La Fontaine has painted the cat as he studied it, under all its aspects, and with the skill of a master. La Fontaine is the Homer of cats. And pray, what was La Fontaine himself, if not a genuine cat? That he loved the owners of the house I am glad to believe, but he loved the house itself still more. He was always curling himself up in it again. His answer to M. d’Hervart: ‘I was going there!’ is a cat’s answer.” The Duchesse de Bouillon, a true lover of cats, asked her friend, La Fontaine, to give her a copy of every fable in which her favourite animal appeared. M. Feuillet de Conches found these precious autographs in an old garret among some ancient papers of the de Bouillon estate.  23
  The French précieuse, Madame Deshoulières, amused herself by writing a long series of poems in epistolary form between her cat, Grisette, and other cats, between her cat, Grisette, and Cochon, the dog of M. le Maréchal le Duc de Vivonne, who was the brother of Madame de Montespan. Passages from these poems are delightful.  24
  Tata, the cat of Madame la Marquise de Montgras writes of Grisette:
        Jamais chatte ne fut si belle;
Jamais chatte ne me plut tant,
and Dom Gris, the cat of Madame la Duchesse de Béthune, in his love letter explains:
        Tout matou que je suis, j’ai l’âme délicate.
Mittin, the cat of Mademoiselle Bocquet, charmingly describes Grisette:
        On ne vous vit jamais souiller vos pattes,
  Innocentes et délicates,
  Du sang des souris et des rats.
En amour vous avez les plus belles manières;
  Vous n’allez point, par des cris scandeleux,
Promener sur les toits la honte de vos feux,
  Ni vous livrer aux matous des gouttières.
And Mittin’s description of himself is irresistible:
        J’appuie adroitement ma patte sur les bras
  De ceux qui sont assis à table.
  Si leur faim est inexorable,
  Ma faim ne se rebute pas;
  Et, d’un air toujours agréable,
  Je tire du moins charitable
  Les morceaux les plus délicats,
Qu’ à la fin il me tend d’une main libérale.
Enfin, quoique je sois un chat des mieux nourris,
Je chasse d’une ardeur qui n’eut jamais d’égale.
Nul matou mieux que moi ne chasse dans Paris;
Et je prétends qu’un jour mon amour vous régale
  D’une hécatombe de souris. 10
  25
  Béranger, too, is interested in the cat in love. He writes of the amorous female:
        Tu réveilles ta maîtresse,
Minette, par tes long cris;
Est-ce la faim qui te presse?
Entends-tu quelque souris?
Tu veux fuir de ma chambrette,
Pour courir je ne sais où
Mia-mia-ou: que veut Minette?
Mia-mia-ou! c’est un matou. 11
  26
  But of all Frenchmen, Baudelaire came the nearest to appreciating and expressing the esoteric nature of cats; he felt that they represented a phase of the occult science. His three poems to cats are mystic masterpieces and no other poet has been able to create works to rival them. Of Baudelaire’s love for pussies, Gautier writes: “As I am speaking of the individual tastes and little eccentricities of the poet, let me say that he adored cats, who like him, are fond of perfumes, and easily thrown into a kind of ecstatic epilepsy by the smell of valerian. He loved these charming creatures, tranquil, mysterious, and gentle, with their electric shudderings, whose favourite attitude is the elongated pose of sphinxes, who seem to have transmitted their secrets to them. They wander about the house with velvet tread, like the genius of the place, or come and sit upon the table near the writer, keeping company with his thought, and gazing at him out the depths of their dark golden pupils with an intelligent tenderness and a magic penetration. It might almost be said that cats divine the idea which descends from the brain to the tip of the pen, and that, stretching out their paws, they wished to seize it in its passage. They like silence, order, and quietness, and no place is so proper for them as the study of a man of letters. With admirable patience they wait until he has finished his task, emitting a guttural and rhythmic purr as a sort of accompaniment to his work. From time to time they gloss with their tongue some ruffled spot in their fur, for they are clean, fastidious, coquettish, and permit no irregularities in their toilet, but always in a calm and discreet way, as if they were afraid to distract or annoy. Their caresses are tender, delicate, silent, and have nothing in common with the noisy and gross petulance which belongs to dogs, upon whom nevertheless, has been bestowed all the sympathy of the vulgar. All these merits were fully appreciated by Baudelaire, who has more than once addressed to cats some fine bits of verse,—the ‘Fleurs du Mal’ contains three,—and often he has them flitting across his compositions as characteristic accessories. Cats abound in the verse of Baudelaire as dogs in the paintings of Paolo Veronese, and are a kind of signature. I should add that among the pretty creatures, so pleasant by day, there is a nocturnal side, mysterious and cabalistic, which is very seductive to the poet. The cat with his phosphoric eyes, which serve him as lanterns, and sparks flying from his back, fearlessly haunts the darkness, where he encounters wandering phantoms, sorcerers, alchemists, necromancers, resurrectionists, lovers, pickpockets, assassins, drunken patrols, and all those obscene larvae which sally forth and do their work only at night. He has the air of having heard last Sunday’s sermon, and readily rubs himself against the lame leg of Mephistopheles. His serenades under the balcony, his amours on the rooftops, accompanied with cries like those of a strangled child, lend him a passably satanic aspect, which to a certain point justifies the repugnance of diurnal and practical minds, for whom the mysteries of Erebus have no charm. But a Dr. Faust in his cell, encumbered with flasks and instruments of alchemy, will like always to have a cat for companion. Baudelaire himself was a voluptuous cat, indolent, with velvety ways, and full of force in his fine suppleness, fixing upon men and things a look of restless penetration, free, voluntary, hard to hold, but without perfidy withal, and faithfully attached to every one to whom he had once given his independent sympathy.” 12  27
  Jules Lemaitre, Francois Coppée, Paul Verlaine, Joseph Boulmier, and Hippolyte Taine all wrote poems about cats. Verlaine’s “Femme et Chatte” is nervous and electric and should have been set to music by Debussy. We must thank Lemaitre for the lines,
            et je salue en toi, calme penseur,
Deux exquises vertus: scepticisme et douceur.
Taine’s twelve sonnets to his three cats, Puss, Ebène, and Mitonne, were written in the fall of 1883 and were not intended for publication. After his death, however, they appeared in the Literary Supplement of the “Figaro” for March 11, 1893, without the authorization of the writer’s heirs and executors. They have not been included in his collected works and as a result they are difficult to procure. Such specimens of them as I have been able to find may be placed with the very best cat poems. This one, for instance, dedicated to Puss, is wholly pleasing:
        Le plaisir, comme il vient; la douleur, s’il le faut,
Puss, vous acceptez tout, et le soleil là-haut,
Quand il finit son tour dans l’immensité bleue,
Vous voit, couchée en circle, au soir comme au matin,
Heureuse sans effort, résignée au destin,
Lisser nonchalamment les poils de votre queue.
Charles Cros’s lines are likewise adorable:
        Chatte blanche, chatte sans tache,
Je te demande dans ces vers
Quel secret dort dans tes yeux verts,
Quel sarcasme sous ta moustache?
But the white cat without a spot refused to reply. Cats occasionally have spoken in China, the South of France, or Alice’s Wonderland, but never for the purpose of giving their secrets away. Indeed one of the oldest affinities cats have with alchemists and philosophers is their capacity for keeping secrets. 13 Imagine a frank dog present at the discovery of the magnum opus. “Gold! Gold!” murmurs the delighted alchemist, and the dog, barking with delight, jumps on his master, upsetting the crucible and retort and destroying the secret. But the cat would gaze through his half-closed, sleepy eyelids, “dumb, inscrutable, and grand.”
  28
  Of the modern French writers Raoul Gineste and Alfred Ruffin have devoted books of poems to cats and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus has written much verse which shows that she has an affinity with the mystic beast. The following lines were first quoted (from manuscript) in “Claudine s’en va.” 14 I do not know that they have appeared elsewhere.
         
POUR LE CHAT
 
Chat, monarque furtif, mystérieux et sage,
Sont-ils dignes, nos doigts encombrés d’anneaux lourds,
De votre majesté blanche et noire, au visage
  De pierrerie et de velours?
 
Votre grâce s’enroule ainsi qu’une chenille;
Vous êtes, au toucher, plus brûlant qu’un oiseau,
Et, seule nudité, votre petit museau
  Est une fleur fraîche qui brille.
 
Vous avez, quoique rubanné comme un sachet,
De la férocité plein vos oreilles noires,
Quand vous daignez crisper vos pattes péremptoires
  Sur quelque inattendu hochet,
 
En votre petitesse apaisée ou qui gronde
Râle la royauté des grands tigres sereins;
Comme un sombre trésor vous cachez dans vos reins
  Toute la volupté du monde …
 
Mais, pour ce soir, nos soins vous importent si peu
Que rien en votre pose immobile n’abdique:
Dans vos larges yeux d’or cligne un regard boudhique,
Et vous vous souvenez que vous êtes un Dieu.
  29
  Madame Delarue-Mardrus has also written an apostrophe to Maut, the goddess with the head of a cat. 15 The goddess responds with a “surnaturel, formidable ronron:
            “O vous, mes soeurs, je suis la chatte-femme.
Je possède, de par ma tête, plus qu’une âme,
Reconnaissez en moi votre animalité.
 
Adorez-moi! Je suis l’instinct et son mystère.
Je suis l’amour, le charme et la fatalité,
Tant qu’il demeurera des femmes sur la terre.
  30
  Gineste meets the cat in many moods. “Conversion” is a satire on those who like animals when they find them useful. “A cat,” writes Margaret Benson, “must either have beauty and breeding, or it must have a profession.” Monsieur Prud’homme went further than this; he insisted, apparently, that all cats should have a profession.
        Monsieur Prud’homme a dit: Je n’aime pas le chat;
C’est un être cruel et traître, il égratigne;
Le chien, ami de l’homme, est, au contraire, digne
De toute mon estime; il lèche qui le bat.
 
Le chat, gourmand fieffé, ne lèche que le plat,
C’est un voleur subtil, un paresseux insigne,
Un animal d’humeur fantasque ou bien maligne,
Un coureur sans vergogne, un serviteur ingrat.
 
Or, voici que Prud’homme est près d’une tendresse
Subite pour le chat qu’il flatte, qu’il caresse,
Qu’il couche près de lui, qu’il nourrit à gogo;
 
Sa concierge éclaira d’un mot son égoïsme,
Affirmant que les chats prennent le rhumatisme;
Et sa personne est fort sujette au lombago.
  31
  Alfred Ruffin, too, has devoted an entire book to poems about cats. The following lines from his “Le Livre des Chats” are entitled:
         
LE CHAT EXILÉ
 
Je ne me suis jamais senti fort attristé
Des pleurs que verse un roi sur la terre étrangère:
Ces gens-là regrettant bien plus la royauté
Que la simple patrie à nous autres si chère;
 
Mais un honnête chat banni de son foyer,
Un chat qui n’a jamais convoité de couronne,
Sur sa juste douleur sait mieux m’apitoyer,
Car je connais le prix de ce qu’il abandonne.
 
L’asile où l’enchaînait depuis des jeunes ans
Le doux et fort lien des libres habitudes,
Ces murs à le frôler devenus caressants,
Ces fentes du plancher, objet de tant d’études,
 
Ce toit où s’asseyant il bâillait près du ciel,
Ces caves dont ses yeux éclairaient le mystère,
Tout cet immeuble enfin dont le maître réel
C’était lui, bien plutôt que le propriétaire,
 
Voilá ce qu’on lui prend! pour Québec ou Chatou
Dans la planche ou l’osier, une main assassine
Emballe miaulant l’infortuné matou:
Entendez-vous gémir l’arbre qu’on déracine?
 
Ah! l’amour du pays, dont l’humaine raison
Arbore en nos drapeaux la noble idolâtrie,
C’est l’instinctif amour du chat pour sa maison:
Les chats auraient sans l’homme inventé la patrie!
 
Et l’animal, au seuil de son logis nouveau
Vers des cieux inconnus jetant sa plainte vaine,
Fournirait pour un cadre aussi poignant tableau
Qu’ Alighieri pleurant sur les bords de la Seine.
The Epilogue to this book, too, I feel that I must permit my readers to enjoy:
        Le chat est beau dans un salon,
Il est beau dans une mansarde,
Beau sur les genoux de Ninon
Comme aux pieds d’une campagnarde;
 
A son aise dans tout décor,
C’est un hôte aussi présentable
Sous des plafonds lambrissés d’or
Que sous les poutres d’une étable;
 
Et tel minet qui vit le jour
Au fond d’une arrière-boutique,
Dès qu’on le produit à la cour
Y paraît un prince authentique.
 
Mais le chat au regard des sots
Est marqué de plus d’une tare,
Et le premier de ses défauts
C’est de n’être pas assez rare.
 
“Noble et beau, soit, mais si banal
Qu’on ne le vend pas, on le donne!
Souvent même on jette au canal
Ses enfants dont ne veut personne!”
 
Toujours d’ailleurs il s’est fait tort
Par excès de bon caractère:
Il est de trop facile abord,
Ce noble est trop égalitaire.
 
Accueillant pour tous les habits,
Riche ou pauvre, qui veut l’embrasse;
Je crois même que des bandits
Il ne détourne pas sa face.
 
Mais il est en cela pareil,
Sur la terre où sa grâce abonde,
Au plus grand des rois, au Soleil
Qui luit gratis pour tout le monde!
  32
  It has happened, perhaps naturally enough, that some of the best poems on cats have been inspired by death. When Joachim du Bellay’s cat, Bélaud, died in 1558, the poet wrote a very long epitaph in honour of his little friend. It is a lovely tribute:
        C’est Bélaud, mon petit Chat gris:
Bélaud, qui fut par avanture
Le plus bel oeuvre que Nature
Fit onc en matiere de Chats:
C’étoit Bélaud, la mort aux Rats,
Bélaud, dont la beauté fut telle,
Qu’elle est digne d’être immortelle.
He describes the animal’s physical appearance, his character and habits, at length. Here is a pretty passage:
        Mon Dieu! quel passe-temps c’étoit
Quand ce Bélaud vire-voltoit,
Folatre au tour d’une pelotte?
Quel plaisir, quand sa tête sotte
Suivant sa queue en mille tours,
D’un roüet imitoit le cours!
Ou quand assis sur le derrière
Il s’en faisoit un jarretière,
Et montrant l’estomac velu,
De panne blanche crespelu,
Sembloit, tant sa trogne étoit bonne,
Quelque Docteur de la Sorbonne!
  33
  Domenico Balestieri’s anthology of poems in several languages devoted to the memory of a single cat is not available. George Huddesford’s mock-heroic “Monody on the Death of Dick, an Academical Cat,” is easier to examine.
        Ye Rats, in triumph elevate your ears!
Exult, ye Mice! for Fate’s abhorred shears
Of Dick’s nine lives have slit the catguts nine;
Henceforth he mews ’midst choirs of Cats divine!
Thus Huddesford writes and, after describing the variety of cats who mourn Dick’s fall he says:
        Though no funereal cypress shade thy tomb,
For thee the wreaths of Paradise shall bloom,
There, while Grimalkin’s mew her Richard greets,
A thousand Cats shall purr on purple seats.
E’en now I see, descending from his throne,
Thy venerable Cat, O Whittington!
The kindred excellence of Richard hail,
And wave with joy his gratulating tail.
There shall the worthies of the whisker’d race
Elysian Mice o’er floors of sapphire chase,
Midst beds of aromatic marum stray,
Or raptur’d rove beside the Milky Way.
Kittens, than eastern houris fairer seen,
Whose bright eyes glisten with immortal green,
Shall smooth for tabby swains their yielding fur,
And to their amorous mews, assenting purr;—
There, like Alcmena’s, shall Grimalkin’s son
In bliss repose,—his mousing labours done,
Fate, envy, curs, time, tide, and traps defy,
And caterwaul to all eternity!
There is perhaps an unwonted strain of frivolity in these lines which is not entirely lacking in the following:
        Ci repose pauvre Mouton,
Que jamais ne fût glouton;
J’espère bien que le roi Pluton,
Lui donnera bon gîte et croûton.
But the epitaph for the cat of Madame Lesdiguieres, inscribed on his monument, is charming, wistful, and pathetic:
        Ci-gît une Chatte jolie:
La Maîtresse qui n’aima rien,
L’aima jusques à la folie;
Pourquoi le dire? on le voit bien.
François de la Mothe le Vayer who, when he was not writing of the most abstruse matters, found it agreeable to create sonnets on cats, composed an epitaph for Marlemain, the favourite cat of Madame la Duchesse du Maine, which has been translated by Edmund Gosse.
        Puss passer-by, within this simple tomb
  Lies one whose life fell Atropos hath shred;
The happiest cat on earth hath heard her doom,
  And sleeps for ever in a marble bed.
Alas! what long delicious days I’ve seen!
  O cats of Egypt, my illustrious sires,
You who on altars, bound with garlands green,—
  Have melted hearts, and kindled fond desires,—
Hymns in your praise were paid, and offerings too,
  But I’m not jealous of those rights divine,
Since Ludovisa loved me, close and true,
  Your ancient glory was less proud than mine.
To live a simple pussy by her side
Was nobler far than to be deified.
Ludovisa, of course, was the duchess.
  34
  These French epitaphs are filled with pity and tenderness and almost a divine sympathy with cats. All the epitaphs in English do not boast these qualities. We cannot, for example, think too highly of Whittier’s effort:
        Bathsheba: To whom none ever said scat,
  No worthier cat
  Ever sat on a mat
  Or caught a rat:
  Requies-cat.
Clinton Scollard’s elegy on Peter, aged twelve, is an extended expression of pity for the poet himself on his loss of the “king of mousers, who no longer rubs his velvet fur against the poet’s trousers.” Vachel Lindsay’s “Dirge for a Righteous Kitten” is better. Gray’s celebrated gold-fish tub catastrophe may be taken as an epitaph in spirit and so may Sir Frederick Pollock’s “Tom of Corpus,” in a more robust vein. Christina Rossetti wrote verses entitled “On the Death of a Cat, a friend of mine age ten years and a half.” A more subtle example is the following, which appeared in the “London Star,” November 3, 1795, “imitated in English from the Latin of Dr. Jortin:
        Worn out with age and dire disease, a cat,
Friendly to all save wicked mouse and rat,
I’m sent at last to ford the Stygian lake,
And to the infernal coast a voyage make.
Me Proserpine received and smiling said:
“Be blessed within these mansions of the dead.
Enjoy among thy velvet-footed loves,
Elysian’s sunny banks, and shady groves!”
“But if I’ve well deserved (O gracious Queen),
If patient under sufferings I have been,
Grant me at least one night to visit home again,
Once more to see my home and mistress dear,
And purr these grateful accents in her ear:
‘Thy faithful cat, thy poor departed slave
Still loves her mistress, e’en beyond the grave.’”
  35
  The cat may be said to have a mystic affinity with the perfect circle, the symbol of mystery, without beginning and without end. Through the centuries she is now worshipped or adored, now cherished as an essential of the household, a mouse-enemy. However man regards the cat does not affect the attitude that animal has towards man, which remains gently tolerant at best and aggressively feral at worst. The poet, sometimes, has seized this superiority of the cat and exalted it, perfumed it with exotic words, waved the incense of the grand phrase before it, and anointed it with the holy oil of inspiration. The poet, alone, can feel the hallucination of the circle. However it is not of any poet I speak. One poet alone, perhaps, has sufficiently comprehended the true significance of the cat to give his comprehension form, the poet of the “Flowers of Evil.”
        Dans ma cervelle se promène,
Ainsi qu’en son appartement,
Un beau chat, fort, doux, et charmant,
Quand il miaule, on l’entend à peine,
 
Tant son timbre est tendre et discret;
Mais que sa voix s’apaise ou gronde,
Elle est toujours riche et profonde,
C’est là son charme et son secret.
  36


Note 1.  I have found frequent references to this work, but have never seen the book itself. [back]
Note 2.  “Les pachas aiment les tigres; moi j’aime les chats,” wrote Théophile Gautier; “les chats sont les tigres des pauvres diables. Hormis les chats, je n’aime rien.…” [back]
Note 3.  Canning probably wrote the first bird-poem in which the sympathy lies with the cat:
        Tell me, tell me, gentle Robin,
What is it sets thy heart a-throbbing?
Is it that Grimalkin fell
Hath killed thy father or thy mother,
Thy sister or thy brother,
Or any other?
 
Tell me but that,
And I’ll kill the cat.
But stay, little Robin, did you ever spare
A grub on the ground or a fly in the air?
No, that you never did, I’ll swear;
So I won’t kill the cat;
That’s flat.
Raoul Gineste also takes the part of the cat in Le Serin. [back]
Note 4.  Francois Coppée once remarked that all cats die a tragic death. “There is not,” he said, “a single case on record of a cat who died in his bed!” [back]
Note 5.  Isaac Newton had a large hole cut in his door for his old cat and a small one for his kittens! These cat doors, which afford easy egress or ingress to the animal, still exist in some Andalusian towns, according to Somerset Maugham (“The Land of the Blessed Virgin”; Heinemann; 1905). Their disappearance in England and France is proof, according to Miss Repplier, of the advanced esteem in which the cat is held, for now people open and shut doors for her when she asks to get in or out. [back]
Note 6.  This is probably due to French influence. The modern English poets may have studied Baudelaire. [back]
Note 7.  This and the following two examples are from “The Kitten’s Garden of Verses”; Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1911. [back]
Note 8.  T. W. Evans: “The Memoirs of Heinrich Heine”; George Bell and Sons; London; 1884. [back]
Note 9.  There is a well-known and oft-repeated story of a cat who, for the first time seeing his own reflection in the mirror, tried to fight it. Meeting with resistance from the glass, he next ran behind the mirror. Not finding the object of his search, he again came to the front, and while keeping his eyes deliberately fixed on the image, felt around the edge of the glass with one paw, whilst with his head twisted around to the front he assured himself of the persistence of the reflection. He never afterwards condescended to notice the mirror.… My cats never pay the slightest attention to mirrors. [back]
Note 10.  Freely translated as “Grisette Dines” the first few lines of this excerpt from a long poem appear in Miss Repplier’s anthology, “The Cat.” But, it will be observed that it is not Grisette who dines. [back]
Note 11.  One might devote a volume to the study of the love-habits of the cat, which are cruel and fascinating. It is diverting to know that once mating is accomplished the male and female quarrel, thus setting an excellent example that is followed generally by the human race. In the mating process, sometimes with blooded cats a matter of days, both male and female often refuse all food! The soft purring call of the female is more amorous than the cooing of a dove. [back]
Note 12.  From Gautier’s preface to “Fleurs du Mal,” P. 33. (Calmann-Lévy; Paris). [back]
Note 13.  “An intending magus shall be discreet and faithful; he shall never reveal what he has been told by a spirit. Daniel was commanded to set a seal on several matters; Paul was forbidden to reveal what he beheld in his ecstasy. The importance of this ordination cannot be exaggerated.” Theosophia Pneumatica”; Frankfort; 1686. [back]
Note 14.  P. 47. [back]
Note 15.  ‘Souffles de Tempête.” [back]

CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

  PREVIOUS NEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors