Thursday, 12 November 2015

'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' - Anna Seward

‘O'er marum borders and valerian bed
Thy Selima shall bend her moping head,
Sigh that no more she climbs, with grateful glee,
Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;
Nay, e'en at founts of cream shall sullen swear,
Since thou, her more loved master, art not there.’

(lines 39-44)

An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy
Anna Seward
(1792)

If you like cats, and if you have a favourite feline, you will probably want to give it a hug after reading this poem.  Not that it is as morbid as the title implies; in fact, it is really quite sentimental.  In its simplest terms, this is a poem about the affection between a cat and its owner. 

The poem is narrated from the perspective of the cat, who has lived for years in the home of her owner, Acasto.  The narration then gets distracted a little as the cat spends time describing herself, demonstrating typically feline self-appreciation through her claim to being ‘The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race’, with ‘The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail’ (lines 2 & 8).  Yet this immodesty is tempered by the cat’s subsequent acknowledgement of her own limitations – ‘pain has stiffened these once supple limbs’ (line 10).  The cat feels old, and that she has almost run out of her lives: ‘Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains, / And e'en the ninth creeps languid through my veins’ (lines 11-12).  Yet still the cat feels her future has ‘Much sure of good […] in store’ (line 13), when she finishes the last of her lives and floats off to cat-heaven. 

In the cat’s imagination, heaven is a place ‘where the fish obligingly lie on the shore and birds have no wings’, as Katherine Rogers so succinctly puts it (p. 89).  If you were just beginning to feel a bit tearful over the ailing cat, this wonderful piece of humor should give you a much-needed lift; personally, the only cats I have ever known have been quite attached to the occupation of hunting, and would probably be quite sad to have the whole thing made so easy and effortless.  Fortunately, this cat at least seems rather keen on the idea; yet still she wants ‘Some days, some few short days, to linger here’ (line 30).  And this is where the really sweet part comes, because the reason for wanting to linger is so that, through the ‘softest purrs’ (line 32) she can try to convey to her owner the simple truth that heaven would not be perfect without him.  Preferring the scraps of food from her masters’s table to the beautiful ‘golden fish and wingless bird’ of heaven (line 38), she wants somehow to let him know that, even in heaven, ‘Thy Selima shall bend her moping head, / […] / Since thou, her more loved master, are not there’ (lines 40 & 45).

If you have a cat, you will probably want to give it a hug now. 

Happy reading!

You can find this poem:-

http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/old-cats-dying-soliloquy
(free online copy of the poem!! Purrfect to get reading right away!!)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 319-20.
(yes, I’m going on about this one again…but it really is a very fascinating book!!  Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I’m really not on commission…)

You can find out more about Anna Seward here:-
 
(this is a shockingly short entry, but still conveys something of her life)

The following book was used in this blogpost:-

Katherine M. Rogers, The Cat and the Human Imagination: Feline Images from Bast to Garfield (University of Michigan Press, 2001)