Chapter IX - Concerning Cats in Poetry Picture

As far back as the ninth century, a poem on a cat was written, which has come down to us from the Arabic. Its author was Ibn Alalaf Alnaharwany, of Bagdad, who died in 318 A.H. or A.D. 930. He was one of the better known poets of the khalifate, and his work may still be found in the original. The following verses, which were translated by Dr. Carlyle, are confessedly a paraphrase rather than a strict translation; but, of course, the sense is the same. Commentators differ on the question as to whether the poet really meant anything more in this poem than to sing of the death of a pet, and some have tried to ascribe to it a hidden meaning which implies beautiful slaves, lovers, and assignations; just as the wise Browning student discovers meanings in that great poet's works of which he never dreamed. Nevertheless, we who love cats are fain to believe that this follower of Mahomet meant only to celebrate the merits—perhaps it would hardly do to call them virtues—of his beloved cat.

The lines are inscribed,—

  ON A CAT

  THAT WAS KILLED AS SHE WAS ATTEMPTING TO ROB A DOVE-HOUSE

  BY IBN ALALAF ALNAHARWANY
  
  Poor Puss is gone!—'tis Fate's decree—
    Yet I must still her loss deplore;
  For dearer than a child was she,
    And ne'er shall I behold her more!

  With many a sad, presaging tear,
    This morn I saw her steal away,
  While she went on without a fear,
    Except that she should miss her prey.

  I saw her to the dove-house climb,
    With cautious feet and slow she stept,
  Resolved to balance loss of time
    By eating faster than she crept.

  Her subtle foes were on the watch,
    And marked her course, with fury fraught;
  And while she hoped the birds to catch,
    An arrow's point the huntress caught.

  In fancy she had got them all,
    And drunk their blood and sucked their breath;
  Alas! she only got a fall,
    And only drank the draught of death.

  Why, why was pigeon's flesh so nice,
    That thoughtless cats should love it thus?
  Hadst thou but lived on rats and mice,
    Thou hadst been living still, poor Puss!

  Cursed be the taste, howe'er refined,
    That prompts us for such joys to wish;
  And cursed the dainty where we find
    Destruction lurking in the dish.

Among the poets, Pussy has always found plenty of friends. Her feline grace and softness has inspired some of the greatest, and, from Tasso and Petrarch down, her quiet and dignified demeanor have been celebrated in verse. Mr. Swinburne, within a few years, has written a charming poem which was published in the Athenaeum, and which places the writer among the select inner circle of true cat-lovers. He calls his verses—

          TO A CAT

  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.
   *       *       *       *       *
  Dogs may fawn on all and some
      As they come:
  You a friend of loftier mind,
  Answer friends alone in kind.
  Just your foot upon my hand
  Softly bids it understand.
  
1. Swampscott; 2. King Ormuz; 3. Rex.

1. Swampscott: fine Maine cat: owned by Mrs. Fred Everett
Smith, Chicago; 2. King Ormuz: owned by Mrs. B. Cumberland,
Dunain, Port Hope, Canada; 3. Rex, son of Ajax: owned by
Mrs. Fred Everett Smith, Chicago.

Thomas Gray's poem on the death of Robert Walpole's cat, which was drowned in a bowl of goldfish, was greatly prized by the latter; after the death of the poet the bowl was placed on a pedestal at Strawberry Hill, with a few lines from the poem as an inscription. In a letter dated March 1, 1747, accompanying it, Mr. Gray says:—

"As one ought to be particularly careful to avoid blunders in a compliment of condolence, it would be a sensible satisfaction to me (before I testify my sorrow and the sincere part I take in your misfortune) to know for certain who it is I lament. [Note the 'Who.'] I knew Zara and Selima (Selima was it, or Fatima?), or rather I knew them both together, for I cannot justly say which was which. Then, as to your handsome cat, the name you distinguish her by, I am no less at a loss, as well knowing one's handsome cat is always the cat one likes best; or if one be alive and the other dead, it is usually the latter that is the handsomest. Besides, if the point were never so clear, I hope you do not think me so ill bred or so imprudent as to forfeit all my interest in the survivor. Oh, no; I would rather seem to mistake and imagine, to be sure, it must be the tabby one that had met with this sad accident. Till this affair is a little better determined, you will excuse me if I do not cry, 'Tempus inane peto, requiem, spatiumque doloris.'"

He closes the letter by saying, "There's a poem for you; it is rather too long for an epitaph." And then the familiar—

  "'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
  Where China's gayest art had dy'd
    The azure flowers that blow:
  Demurest of the tabby kind,
  The pensive Selima, reclined,
    Gazed on the lake below."

Wordsworth's "Kitten and the Falling Leaves," is in the high, moralizing style.

  "That way look, my Infant, lo!
  What a pretty baby show.
  See the kitten on the wall,
  Sporting with the leaves that fall,
   *       *       *       *       *
  "But the kitten, how she starts,
  Crouches, stretches, paws, and darts
  First at one and then its fellow,
  Just as light and just as yellow:
  There are many now—now one,
  Now they stop, and there are none.
  What intentness of desire
  In her upward eye of fire!
  With a tiger-leap halfway
  Now she meets the coming prey,
  Lets it go as fast, and then
  Has it in her power again:
  Now she works with three or four.
  Like an Indian conjuror:
  Quick as he in feats of art,
  Far beyond in joy of heart.
  Were her antics played in the eye
  Of a thousand standers-by,
  Clapping hands with shout and stare,
  What would little Tabby care
  For the plaudits of the crowd?
  Over happy to be proud,
  Over wealthy in the treasure
  Of her own exceeding pleasure.
   *       *       *       *       *
  "Pleased by any random toy:
  By a kitten's busy joy,
  Or an infant's laughing eye
  Sharing in the ecstacy:
  I would fain like that or this
  Find my wisdom in my bliss:
  Keep the sprightly soul awake,
  And have faculties to take,
  Even from things by sorrow wrought,
  Matter for a jocund thought,
  Spite of care and spite of grief,
  To gambol with life's falling leaf."

Cowper's love for animals was well known. At one time, according to Lady Hesketh, he had besides two dogs, two goldfinches, and two canaries, five rabbits, three hares, two guinea-pigs, a squirrel, a magpie, a jay, and a starling. In addition he had, at least, one cat, for Lady Hesketh says, "One evening the cat giving one of the hares a sound box on the ear, the hare ran after her, and having caught her, punished her by drumming on her back with her two feet hard as drumsticks, till the creature would actually have been killed had not Mrs. Unwin rescued her." It might have been this very cat that was the inspiration of Cowper's poem, "To a Retired Cat," which had as a moral the familiar stanza:—

  "Beware of too sublime a sense
  Of your own worth and consequence:
  The man who dreams himself so great
  And his importance of such weight,
  That all around, in all that's done,
  Must move and act for him alone,
  Will learn in school of tribulation
  The folly of his expectation."

Baudelaire wrote:—

  "Come, beauty, rest upon my loving heart,
  But cease thy paws' sharp-nailed play,
  And let me peer into those eyes that dart
  Mixed agate and metallic ray."
   *       *       *       *       *
  "Grave scholars and mad lovers all admire
  And love, and each alike, at his full tide
  Those suave and puissant cats, the fireside's pride,
  Who like the sedentary life and glow of fire."

Goldsmith also wrote of the kitten:—

  "Around in sympathetic mirth
    Its tricks the kitten tries:
  The cricket chirrups in the hearth,
    The crackling fagot flies."

Does this not suggest a charming glimpse of the poet's English home?

Keats was evidently not acquainted with the best and sleekest pet cat, and his "Sonnet to a Cat" does not indicate that he fully appreciated their higher qualities.

Mr. Whittier, our good Quaker poet, while not attempting an elaborate sonnet or stilted elegiac, shows a most appreciative spirit in the lines he wrote for a little girl who asked him one day, with tears in her eyes, to write an epitaph for her lost Bathsheba.

  "Bathsheba: To whom none ever said scat,
              No worthier cat
              Ever sat on a mat
              Or caught a rat:
              Requies-cat."

Clinton Scollard, however, has given us an epitaph that many sympathizing admirers would gladly inscribe on the tombstones of their lost pets, if it were only the popular fashion to put tombstones over their graves. This is Mr. Scollard's tribute, the best ever written:—

        GRIMALKIN 

  AN ELEGY ON PETER, AGED TWELVE 

  In vain the kindly call: in vain
  The plate for which thou once wast fain
  At morn and noon and daylight's wane,
        O King of mousers.
  No more I hear thee purr and purr
  As in the frolic days that were,
  When thou didst rub thy velvet fur
        Against my trousers.

  How empty are the places where
  Thou erst wert frankly debonair,
  Nor dreamed a dream of feline care,
        A capering kitten.
  The sunny haunts where, grown a cat,
  You pondered this, considered that,
  The cushioned chair, the rug, the mat,
        By firelight smitten.

  Although of few thou stoodst in dread,
  How well thou knew a friendly tread,
  And what upon thy back and head
        The stroking hand meant.
  A passing scent could keenly wake
  Thy eagerness for chop or steak,
  Yet, Puss, how rarely didst thou break
        The eighth commandment.

  Though brief thy life, a little span
  Of days compared with that of man,
  The time allotted to thee ran
        In smoother metre.
  Now with the warm earth o'er thy breast,
  O wisest of thy kind and best,
  Forever mayst thou softly rest,
        In pace, Peter.

One only has to read this poem to feel that Mr. Scollard knew what it is to love a gentle, intelligent, affectionate cat—made so by kind treatment.

To François Coppée the cat is as sacred as it was to the Egyptians of old. The society of his feline pets is to him ever delightful and consoling, and it may have inspired him to write some of his most melodious verses. Nevertheless he is not the cat's poet. It was Charles Cros who wrote:—

  "Chatte blanche, chatte sans tache,
  Je te demande dans ces vers
  Quel secret dort dans tes yeux verts,
  Quel sarcasme sous ta moustache?"

Here is a version in verse of the famous "Kilkenny Cats":—

  "O'Flynn, she was an Irishman, as very well was known,
  And she lived down in Kilkenny, and she lived there all alone,
  With only six great large tom-cats that knowed their ways about;
  And everybody else besides she scrupulously shut out."

  "Oh, very fond of cats was she, and whiskey, too, 'tis said,
  She didn't feed 'em very much, but she combed 'em well instead:
  As may be guessed, these large tom-cats did not get very sleek
  Upon a combing once a day and a 'haporth' once a week.

  "Now, on one dreary winter's night O'Flynn she went to bed
  With a whiskey bottle under her arm, the whiskey in her head.
  The six great large tom-cats they all sat in a dismal row,
  And horridly glared their hazy eyes, their tails wagged to and fro.

  "At last one grim graymalkin spoke, in accents dire to tell,
  And dreadful were the words which in his horrid whisper fell:
  And all the six large tom-cats in answer loud did squall,
  'Let's kill her, and let's eat her, body, bones, and all.'

  "Oh, horrible! Oh, terrible! Oh, deadly tale to tell!
  When the sun shone through the window-hole all seemed still and well:
  The cats they sat and licked their paws all in a merry ring.
  But nothing else in all the house looked like a living thing.

  "Anon they quarrelled savagely—they spit, they swore, they hollered:
  At last these six great large tom-cats they one another swallered:
  And naught but one long tail was left in that once peaceful dwelling,
  And a very tough one, too, it was—it's the same that I've been telling."

By far more artistic is the version for which I am indebted to Miss Katharine Eleanor Conway, herself a poet of high order and a lover of cats.

  THE KILKENNY CATS 

  There wanst was two cats in Kilkenny,
  Aitch thought there was one cat too many;
    So they quarrelled and fit,
    They scratched and they bit,
    Till, excepting their nails,
    And the tips of their tails,
  Instead of two cats, there wasn't any.

This version comes from Ireland, and is doubtless the correct original.

"Note," says Miss Conway, "the more than Greek delicacy with which the tragedy is told. No mutilation, no gore; just an effacement—prompt and absolute—'there wasn't any.' It would be hard to overpraise that fine touch."

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