Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"On the death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"

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

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

Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Thomas Gray (1717-1771)
_______________________________________________________________


The "nymph" herself was Selima a tortoiseshell tabby cat owned by gothic novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1779) . The poor lady did indeed meet her untimely demise in a tub of goldfish at Walpole's house in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. I must have seen the very same Chinese bowl (which Walpole had engraved with the first stanza of the poem) when I visited the house a few years ago. Wish I could remember it!

Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray, was called upon to commemorate the tragic event in an epitaph. He wrote a poem instead. "I am about to immortalize [her] for one week or fortnight," wrote Gray to Walpole. We still feel the same mixture of pity and amusement two and a half centuries on!

What gives me greatest pleasure about the poem is the tone of it. There's such a contrast between the style of poem (a classical elegy which traditionally would have dealt with far loftier themes) and its content. There are plenty of classical allusions and references to Greek and Roman mythology. (A nymph is a water-spirit, genii are the spirits of the place, nereid are sea-nymphs.) Notice how the water in a fish bowl becomes a whole ocean? The gentle mockery is very funny.

Selima is spoken of in human terms. Her undoing is caused by her vanity (notice how she is entirely wrapped up in admiring her reflection in the second stanza) and her lust for gold ("What female heart can gold despise?/ What cat's averse to fish?"). Her death turned by Gray into a tongue-in-cheek moral lesson in the last stanza.

When I read the poem it reminds me of my own beautiful tortoiseshell tabby who flirts so outrageously with my husband I can't believe she's not trying to deliberately make me jealous! We're rivals, for sure. ("A fav'rite has no friends!")

Oh ... love also the form of the poem - the sixline stanzas with their aabccb rhyme scheme, and shorter third line. Formality here gives me much pleasure.

*Selima's portrait by Stephen Elmer (d. 1796). Note that the vase shown in the painting is made of glass - Elmer wanted to show his skill in painting fish!

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17 Comments:

Blogger Dean said...

That's a wonderful poem, and obviously the last line is where we get the common saw "not all that glitters is gold". Thanks!

4:15 AM, July 19, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

What a fun poem to share... Interestingly, I was thinking of posting this poem too, but you beat me to it. :)

Yes, though an elegy, the tone is really playful, with elements of a mock-heroic with the references made to Greek gods and legends. I really like the drama in the lines "Eight times emerging from the flood/ She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god/Some speedy aid to send...". In some edition of this poem, the title is " The Ode on the death...".

Thanks Sharon for sharing the context of the poem - something I wasn't aware of. Poor cat though... as they say, curiosity killed it, though she is now 'immortalised' in this poem (even hundred of years later).

On a different note, i wonder about why cats are more often seen or associated with the female or the feminine, or is it just me? (off course, there is garfield, a male cat). Just my wandering thoughts.

6:35 PM, July 19, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

dean - isn't there also an echo of that line in shakespeare's 'merchant of venice'? "all that glisters is not gold"

dreamer idiot - you were thinking of posting it too!? that proves it was a good choice.

"mock-heroic" ... ah yes. i was searching for words, but that describes it exactly.

i only just understood why the poet says she came up eight times ... cats have nine lives traditionally, and the ninth time, poor selima went under

i also think of cats as feminine and dogs as masculine - maybe it's the grace of the cat ...

9:32 PM, July 19, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharon, amusing poem, though I shouldn't really say this because I love animals, and this is about a cat drowning - or is it?? I look at the line with "What female heart can gold despise?" and the last one,

Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Gray was warning his readers not to be tempted by glitter and wealth, and temptation? If so, then the cat is metaphorical and no real cat had actually died, hadn't it?

BTW, DI and Sharon, u all relegate cats to femme and dogs to butch. But, why do people call a male cat such a masculine epithet as Tom, and for a female dog such an unpleasant one, a bitch?

1:18 PM, July 20, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahahaha... interesting point there, Leon, I hadn't thought of it. I didn't see it that way, but wonder whether 'bitch' took on a negative connotation because of its now prevalent usage as a insult. Perhaps, 'bitch' wasn't negative in its origial sense (400 years ago?), but we'll have to get a historical linguist on that one.

1:42 PM, July 20, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

leon - sorry dear, but yes a real cat was involved - the hapless selima

we shouldn't laugh but

the word 'bitch' is considered less serious in british english and we often fling it about as a joke

1:48 PM, July 20, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

maybe poets shouls add a disclaimer

"no animals were harmed in the making of this poem"!

10:48 PM, July 20, 2006  
Blogger snowdrop said...

ooo... i'm so pleased i caught the "eight times" significance on first reading *grin*

what a nice poem, sharon, fun but tragic at the same time, like as if Gray were trying to console Selima's owner by showing him the absurdity of the method of death :)

12:54 PM, July 21, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Oh no, Snowdrop, I didn't catch that the eight times...Will start looking. :)

Sharon, disclaimer for poetry? hahaha,

3:09 PM, July 21, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Maybe Gray is saying in the end is that, despite the alluring qualities that we ailurophiles ascribe to them, "it's just a cat, a common predator" -- 'What female heart can gold despise? / What cat's averse to fish? ... 'not that glisters, gold'.

While we know that cats were deified in ancient Egyption culture, in Europe at least, they have only started to become cherished household pets in the late 17th century. By mid-18th C., the affection that some cat-owners feel to their pets was still considered an eccentricity.

There is an anecdote that suggests that Gray had good-naturedly poked fun at Walpole about his friend's attachment to Selima when writing back after Walpole wrote to him about Selima's passing -- I'd have to look it up... it's in a book I read recently, 'The Cat and the Human Imagination' by Katharine M. Rogers.

An interesting poem; I've come across it before. Samuel Johnson didn't like it much, as he writes in The Life of Gray:

"Gray's poetry is now to be considered, and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life. [...] The poem on the Cat was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle, but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza "the azure flowers that blow" shew resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the Cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines,

What female heart can gold despise? /What cat's averse to fish?

the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that "a favourite has no friend," but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been "gold," the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned."

And I tend to agree, although I believe that Samuel Johnson missed the point of the poem.

I like it for the subject matter, the cat -- and Gray captured her character and behaviour beautifully don't you think? -- and how it's a peek into the correspondence between the two writers.

Thanks, Sharon. (& that's a gorgeous drawing too!)

4:57 PM, July 21, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machnist, wow, the creadth of your reading astounds me. Are you sure you are not a genius? Thanks for the tip-up.

BTW, I thought someone would one day write something a cultural study and history of the representation of cats, but sure enough someone already did.

Samuel Johnson - that fellow who frowns on a hundred other things.

10:46 PM, July 21, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Yes, DI... and it's a fantastic book.

You might enjoy this too, from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, 'The Cat That Walked By Itself'.

3:06 AM, July 22, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

ailurophiles? i've learned a new word!!

much as i love johnson (and i do, i really do!), he does rather squelch the fun

i'm so impressed that you found the reference!!

i can imagine the teasing that walpole got for loving his cat. (i get a lot of teasing). katherien m. rodger's book sounds like one i should have. (t go with all my cat books. i even have 'christmas carols for cats' and yes, i sing them to my kitties ...

i love the just so stories and thanks for the link

10:53 AM, July 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a note that the 'not all the glitters is gold' comes orignally from a Sshakespeare text, i forget which one now.

5:39 PM, April 16, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the cat is a metaphor for a woman. obv.

7:29 PM, May 11, 2009  
Blogger Susan said...

Yes, the last line alludes to Portia's in Merchant of Venice. What's interesting is the use of "glisters" instead of "glitters." Wonder where that came from... was "glister" commonly used, or was it one of Shakespeare's original riffs?

9:56 PM, January 12, 2012  
Blogger anchal dahiya said...

good work!!

12:44 AM, March 21, 2012  

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