Showing posts with label cats. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cats. Show all posts

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)

Friday, 17 July 2015

'The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat' - Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

‘The Queen of Birds, t'encrease the Regal Stock,
Had hatch'd her young Ones in a stately Oak,
Whose Middle-part was by a Cat possest,
And near the Root with Litter warmly drest,
A teeming Sow had made her peaceful Nest.
(Thus Palaces are cramm'd from Roof to Ground,
And Animals, as various, in them found.)’
(lines 1-7)

The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea
(published 1713)

It sounds like the start of a joke, but the only humour here is of the darkest kind.  Three animals are
all living in the same tree, but one of them sees a chance of monopolising the situation and takes it.  By playing upon the fears of his neighbours, the cat finds a cunning way of coming out on top; there is no hero in this story, only a stark warning about being careful when taking advice that the advisor doesn't have their own best interests at heart.

Illustration from 1668 edition of Jean de La Fontaine's
Fables, Book III.  Woodcut by François Chauveau.
This image courtesy of:
http://www.la-fontaine-ch-thierry.net/aiglaichat.htm
The basic storyline comes from a French poem by Jean de La Fontaine, entitled ‘L’Aigle, la Laie, et la Chatte’, published in 1668 with the accompanying illustration by François Chauveau.  Yet Anne Finch’s poem is far more than a simple translation.  In analysing Finch’s work, both Charles H. Himnant and Paula R. Backsheider have noted how in Finch’s hands this little fable becomes a subtle political comment.  In 1688 William and Mary of Orange deposed Mary’s father, James II of England; differences of religion were the focus of the coup.  Yet while this incident is frequently referred to as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ because of the comparative peacefulness with which it took place, there were those who opposed the change.  Anne Finch and her husband, Heneage Finch, were amongst those who refused to support the new monarchs.  Fleeing London for the safety of the country, they remained active in support of James (with Heneage even ending up imprisoned for a time for having attempted to join James's exiled court in France).  For Anne, this activity was in the form of writing; through the cat’s smooth assumption of power in ‘The Eagle, the Sow, and the Cat’ it is easy to see, as Paula Backsheider points out, the character of ‘the wily courtier, a figure risen from the middle ranks, who rejoices in sowing dissent’ (p. 47).  Though this is not strictly allegorical, and the politics surrounding the ‘Glorious Revolution’ is much more complex and intricate than there is space to discuss here, this is certainly a poem that assumes a highly critical tone of those who use deceit and betrayal to usurp power.

I don’t want to get too heavy though: I originally chose this poem for inclusion here because, at least on first reading, it does seem rather funny.  A bit like an Aesop fable, it conveys a serious moral message through the means of entertainment.  It’s the kind of poem designed to make you first laugh at the gullibility of the eagle and the sow - then stop and realise that, actually, the author has quite a serious point.  Not least, it's aim is to provoke reflection upon gullibility more generally, and on the importance of not letting the selfish concern for personal safety create destructive panic.  The eagle and the sow both abandon their young because of the cat’s machinations, yet this is as much a result of their own preoccupation with self-preservation as of the cat’s deceit.    

One or two points to note before you read this: the first two lines look like a clumsy attempt at rhyme, but it’s useful to remember that pronunciation of words has changed a lot over time.  Linguistic historians would probably be able to explain it better, but basically don’t write her off as a poet just because her first couplet doesn’t seem to work; when she was writing, it probably did rhyme.  Also, when the poem refers to ‘Sow’s paps’ as a great delicacy, it is referring to mammary glands (I know, sounds disgusting: but then the cat is the villain of the piece, remember). The 'sycophant' referred to in the moral describes a person who is ingratiating towards another simply for their own gain (in this poem, the cat). 

Happy reading! And apologies to all the internet cat lovers out there!
As always, feel free to leave comments and ask questions!

You can find this poem:

(editions of Anne Finch’s poetry are not always easy to come by, so I would recommend readers use this free version of the poem available online, and from which I have taken the reading that follows.)



Other poems by Anne Finch can be found here:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/anne-finch#about
(Poetry Foundation online: great free resource!!)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Carcanet Press Ltd,
2003)
(this is pretty much what it says on the tin: selected poems by Anne Finch.  Available from numerous places; I just put the link to Waterstones for variety.  And because they have a points card system…)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!  Last time this came up in a blog post I entered up ordering a copy, which arrived in the post the other day… Look out for future blogs referring to poems in this exciting little anthology! There are plenty of economical priced second-hand copies of this available online too!)

The information for this blogpost was taken from the following sources:

Paula R. Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (JHU Press, 2005), p. 47
(This looks to be a fascinating and clear book; like many works of literary criticism, this might be a little expensive for small budgets (like mine), so I’ve attached a link to the pages relating to this poem, available via a preview on googlebooks)  

Charles H. Himnant, The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation (University of Delaware, 1994) pp. 194-6
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NPJuMBADoYAC&pg=PA194&lpg=PA194&dq=anne+finch+the+eagle+the+sow+and+the+cat&source=bl&ots=mK9qsHosPB&sig=S2QdnbXZfpMgRFrqWTPUBnx3P8g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAWoVChMIo6ec793hxgIVQZ8UCh0zVgB5#v=onepage&q=anne%20finch%20the%20eagle%20the%20sow%20and%20the%20cat&f=false
(The link should lead to a googlebooks preview of the book that gives most of the relevant information about this poem)

Barbara McGovern, ‘Finch, Anne, countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9426 [accessed 16 July 2015]
(sadly, this resource is accessible by subscription only)

Leslie Clifford Sykes, “Jean de La Fontaine”, Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2015
http://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-de-La-Fontaine [accessed 17 July 2015]
(an excellent, and free, resource!)

(a website all about Jean de La Fontaine, written in French but accessible to to English-only speakers via google translate)

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com
(a useful free dictionary online!  Always worth looking up unfamiliar words!)

You can also find out more about Anne Finch on her Wikipedia page:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Finch,_Countess_of_Winchilsea

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes' - Thomas Gray

 
‘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?’
                                                    (lines 19-24)

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat: Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
Thomas Gray
1747

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.

Happy reading!
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…

http://www.thomasgray.org.uk/
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!