Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot

Source of book: I own this.

Two preliminaries. No, I have never seen Cats, although I have played various selections. Second, I am a confirmed cat person. Additionally, although I have liked certain dogs throughout my lifetime, I am not a dog person, and would be unlikely to ever own one voluntarily. And please, don’t get me started on the widespread lack of training and supervision given to dogs these days.

With this out of the way, here are my impressions of T. S. Eliot’s humorous work. I chose this one to provide a contrast to the relative heaviness of Christina Rossetti and Dante, which were my previous poetry reads this year.

I had forgotten how effective anapests can be. It is easy to think of them in the context of limericks, and then dismiss them as out of place in “real” poetry. This book reminded me that light verse can still speak truth, and that the anapest rhythm can work with the meaning to convey the author’s point of view.

Eliot was clearly a cat person, judging from these poems. I have had a cat around the house pretty much continuously since I was age five. Give me a typical house cat, and I can have it completely relaxed and happy in a minute or two. Only the truly feral have been able to resist my taming – I have taken in a few wild-born strays over the years. So I know a bit about cats and cat people. So did Eliot. He was able to highlight and exaggerate feline traits, while using just enough personification to meld the human and the feline.

A great example is the opening poem, “The Naming of Cats.”

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter--
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

I haven’t yet had time to read any of these to my kids. However, since my second daughter loves mice and all things mouse, I suspect she will like this one:

The Old Gumbie Cat

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat;
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse--cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that's smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment
To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment.
So she's formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do
And she's even created a Beetles' Tattoo.

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

I love the idea of the cat teaching the mice to do needlework. There’s something almost Lewis Carrollian about the picture.

For use of the anapest rhythm, these lines from “Old Deuteronomy” serve well.

Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession.

I found this collection to be a fun diversion, and a chance to enjoy the thoughts of another cat lover in verse form. 
UPDATE December 2021: 
I read this with my youngest, and she loved it. She loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian someday, but she particularly loves our menagerie of cats. The particular version we found for her has delightful illustrations Edward Gorey. Here is the cover, and a drawing of Mister Mistoffles. 


Note on T. S. Eliot: I do want to read more of Eliot’s serious poetry. I read a few in high school, but have never really revisited his work as an adult. Fortunately I have his complete works in hardback. I do find it interesting that Eliot was one of a number of literary and artistic figures at that time that changed from American to British citizenship – and vice versa. Both Henry James and Eliot became British citizens, while others, such as P. G. Wodehouse became Americans. In addition, the so-called “lost generation” did the fashionable thing and lived as expatriates in France. The first half of the twentieth century seems to have been the golden age of expatriation, at least for those of the artistic bent.

Note on the edition: Those who follow my blog or know me personally are undoubtedly aware that a significant majority of the books in my library were “used” at the time I purchased them. I use the term “used”, but in fact, many of these books have never been actually read. I wince and rejoice simultaneously whenever I find a beautiful hardcover book that has crackles when I first open it, showing that it was kept on the shelf by the previous owner. My edition contains the complete T. S. Eliot poems and plays, and was published in 1952. In this case, I believe the book was read, as it contains a few notes in the margin. 

One of the other fun things about buying older books is the occasional surprise hidden in the leaves. In this particular book, there is an old newspaper article (source unknown) stuck at the beginning of Practical Cats. While I can’t say I agree with the article, it is an interesting snapshot of one perspective from years ago. 

 Click on picture to magnify 

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