Carl Van Vechten (18801964). The Tiger in the House. 1922.
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.
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.
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.
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 peasants hearth and the shop-keepers friend, just as surely as she is the astrologers 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,
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.
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 Moores 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 replyd)
Superior merit on your side;
Nor does my breast with envy swell,
To find it recompensd so well;
Yet I, in what my nature can,
Contribute to the good of man.
Whose claws destroy the pilfring mouse?
Who drives the vermin from the house?
Or, watchful for the labring swain,
From lurking rats secures the grain?
From hence, if he awards bestow,
Why should your heart with gall oerflow?
Why pine my happiness to see,
Since theres enough for you and me?
Thy words are just, the Farmer cryd,
And spurnd 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 hovring, pinchd with age and frost;
Her shrivelld hands, with veins embossed,
Upon her knees her weight sustain,
While palsy shook her crazy brain:
She mumbles forth her backward prayrs,
An untamd scold of fourscore years.
About her swarmd a numrous brood
Of Cats, who lank with hunger mewd.
Teasd with their cries, her choler grew,
And thus she sputterd: Hence, ye crew.
Fool that I was, to entertain
Such imps, such fiends, a hellish train!
Had ye been never housd and nursd,
I, for a witch, had neer been cursd.
To you I owe, that crowds of boys
Worry me with eternal noise;
Straws laid across, my pace retard;
The horse-shoes naild (each thresholds guard);
The stunted broom the wenches hide,
For fear that I should up and ride.
Tabbys reply is the wail of all the cats of the middle ages:
In Peter Pindars 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;
No feline poem is better known than Thomas Grays 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 Cowpers two cat poems, in one of which there occurs a catastrophe4 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 poets 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,
Apparelld in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to Court.
One of Matthew Priors 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 Hoods 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 kittens busy joy. Shelley was surely not inspired when he wrote his lines on an esurient cat and Keatss 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. Calverleys 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 Tennysons verses, The Spinsters 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.
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, loves lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
is perhaps a little sentimental, but Richard Garnetts 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 Persephones own Puss you be,
Let Orcus breed oblivionof me,
is irresistibly appealing; so is the description in Arsinoës 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 Watsons great Angora throned in monumental calm immobile, imperturbable, too, sticks in the memory.
American poets do not all come off very well in their cat poems. Bret Hartes Miss Ediths 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.
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
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:
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 poets 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.
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.
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 Florians Fable of the Two Cats, the lazy old matou says to the lean laborious tom,
This may be true. Florians 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.
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 Fontaines 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. dHervart: I was going there! is a cats 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.
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.
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 Baudelaires 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 Sundays 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
Jules Lemaitre, Francois Coppée, Paul Verlaine, Joseph Boulmier, and Hippolyte Taine all wrote poems about cats. Verlaines 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.
Taines 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 writers 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, sil le faut,
Puss, vous acceptez tout, et le soleil là-haut,
Quand il finit son tour dans limmensité 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 Cross 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 Alices 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.
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 sen 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 danneaux lourds,
De votre majesté blanche et noire, au visage
De pierrerie et de velours?
Votre grâce senroule ainsi quune chenille;
Vous êtes, au toucher, plus brûlant quun 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 nabdique:
Dans vos larges yeux dor cligne un regard boudhique,
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 Prudhomme went further than this; he insisted, apparently, that all cats should have a profession.
Monsieur Prudhomme a dit: Je naime pas le chat;
Cest un être cruel et traître, il égratigne;
Le chien, ami de lhomme, est, au contraire, digne
It has happened, perhaps naturally enough, that some of the best poems on cats have been inspired by death. When Joachim du Bellays cat, Bélaud, died in 1558, the poet wrote a very long epitaph in honour of his little friend. It is a lovely tribute:
Cest Bélaud, mon petit Chat gris:
Bélaud, qui fut par avanture
Le plus bel oeuvre que Nature
Fit onc en matiere de Chats:
Cétoit Bélaud, la mort aux Rats,
Bélaud, dont la beauté fut telle,
Quelle est digne dêtre immortelle.
He describes the animals physical appearance, his character and habits, at length. Here is a pretty passage:
Domenico Balestieris anthology of poems in several languages devoted to the memory of a single cat is not available. George Huddesfords 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 Fates abhorred shears
Of Dicks 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 Dicks fall he says:
Though no funereal cypress shade thy tomb,
For thee the wreaths of Paradise shall bloom,
There, while Grimalkins mew her Richard greets,
A thousand Cats shall purr on purple seats.
Een 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 whiskerd race
Elysian Mice oer floors of sapphire chase,
Midst beds of aromatic marum stray,
Or rapturd 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 Alcmenas, shall Grimalkins 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;
Jespère 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 naima rien,
Laima 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 Ive 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,
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 Whittiers effort:
Bathsheba: To whom none ever said scat,
No worthier cat
Ever sat on a mat
Or caught a rat:
Clinton Scollards 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 poets trousers. Vachel Lindsays Dirge for a Righteous Kitten is better. Grays celebrated gold-fish tub catastrophe may be taken as an epitaph in spirit and so may Sir Frederick Pollocks 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,
Im 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,
Elysians sunny banks, and shady groves!
But if Ive 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, een beyond the grave.
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.
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 jaime les chats, wrote Théophile Gautier; les chats sont les tigres des pauvres diables. Hormis les chats, je naime 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 Ill 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, Ill swear;
So I wont kill the cat;
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 Kittens Garden of Verses; Charles Scribners 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 Reppliers 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 Gautiers 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]