Cat poetry (Part 2)

The famed Romantic poet Thomas Gray wrote a verse about his friend’s cat drowning in a goldfish bowl. [2 of 2]

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat - frontispiece
William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday I wrote about the most famous cat poem to come out of the English Romantic period… but it’s not the only one. Thomas Gray is most well-known today for his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, a poem that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot. But about the same time he was writing that famous poem, Gray also put together a little piece called Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.

It’s a mock-heroic tale of a female cat, undone by the allurements of the fish swimming in a china bowl below it:

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?

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat

The cat in question belonged to Horace Walpole, Gray’s friend and himself a significant personage in the English Romantic tradition. Walpole wrote the first English Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (which I mentioned briefly in a previous post about Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prisons of the imagination). Walpole was delighted with this poem; he had some lines from it inscribed on a china bowl – the same bowl in which his cat drowned.

The poem was one of only thirteen that Gray published in his lifetime. The picture above is from an illustrated version drawn by yet another significant Romantic figure, William Blake. If you think it looks suspiciously human-like, you’d be correct. The full sequence shows the cat becoming more and more human as the ode develops:

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat by Blake
William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By the final panel, the cat’s spirit or spectre is basically a shrouded lady emerging from the depths:

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat by Blake
William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems cats were something of an obsession for the Romantics. Supposedly Percy Bysshe Shelley’s oldest extant poem – written when he was ten years old – is also about a cat. John Keats and William Wordsworth both wrote cat poetry too. But I think that’s enough cat poems for a while. At some point in the future I’ll revisit this topic and talk a bit about Medieval cat poetry – which is pretty wild too.

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