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: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
In some ways it’s a shocking title: a beloved pet has died in tragic circumstances. Yet, in typical eighteenth-century style, there is an element of satiric bathos. It is a poem about death, a tribute to a treasured feline companion; yet it is also an attempt to construct a funny side to an otherwise dismal situation. Certainly, it would seem to have been an attempt that succeeded: Horace Walpole, the owner of the unfortunate cat, had the first verse of the poem engraved onto a pedestal upon which he displayed the China vase in which his pet had met its end (apparently this is still on display in Walpole’s gothic mansion Strawberry Hill).
The artist and writer William Blake was commissioned to produce an illustrated edition of Thomas Gray’s poetry; I’ve included one of the illustrations here, because I think it helps to understand the doubling of images in the poem. What makes it funny is the way that the events are presented with such exaggerated solemnity: the two goldfish are ‘genii of the stream’, while the tragic victim is the ‘hapless nymph’. The serious aspect of the final moral that ‘all that glisters [is not] gold’ also transforms the incident into a useful life example. The concept itself is by no means original: Shakespeare includes an almost identical phrase in the play The Merchant of Venice, and, long after Gray’s death, Tolkien incorporated a similar idea into his description of the returning king, Aragorn, in The Lord of the Rings. Yet the glorious juxtaposition of humour and solemnity that Gray achieves surely makes this the most unique and stunning depiction of this proverb.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section!
Picture: Illustration for Gray's 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,' William Blake, 1798. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, p. C.8. (It should be noted, that the original was much better quality than my low-resolution image)
You can find this poem:
A lovely free version of the poem available online! This site also has a wealth of information surrounding Gray to suit all levels of interest and enthusiasm!
Another free version of the poem available online! if
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by James Noggle and Lawrence Lipking, pp. 3050-3051
If, like me, you prefer a good solid book, this is an excellent place to find the poem!
For more information about Thomas Gray:
Wikipedia!! Always a good place to start…
A stunning resource!! Don’t be put off by all the talk about scholars and academics: this site is for anyone interested in Gray and his poetry!
Strawberry Hill, the gothic-castle-home of Horace Walpole, is now an exceedingly interesting museum: definitely worth a look!