What cat’s averse to fish?

The Monster

Not my cat, here caught tidying up after the (lesser) dirty deed on the nature strip.  He isn’t the smartest or most enterprising of cats, so his enthusiasm is confined to cat food or scraps (dropped – he’s no leaper) from the table or the kitchen bench.


Nor Diesel, who lives two houses down from us.   He is much smarter than our cat and an indefatigable hunter.  D has seen him leap into the air to catch a bird (successfully) and we have also lost fish to him.  We suspect him of catching the frog which disappeared from our garden last year.  It is because of him that our temporary fish pond in a shopping-trolley is encased in additional wire and netting protection.

I sometimes worry what might happen if Diesel were to attempt to slip under the protective wire and netting, though he is probably too smart to try.  Would he make it out, or would he drown?

And nor was Selima, Horace Walpole’s tortoiseshell cat, whose fate (circa 1747) is the source of that worry and the occasion for Thomas Gray‘s poem, “Ode On The Death Of A Favourite Cat Drowned In A Tub Of Goldfishes,” (also here) which I can’t resist setting out in full.

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dy’d
The azure flow’rs that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin’d,
Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw: and purr’d applause.

Still had she gaz’d; but ‘midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Thro’ richest purple to the view
Betray’d a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch’d in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil’d)
The slipp’ry verge her feet beguil’d,
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood
She mew’d to ev’ry wat’ry god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr’d;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A Fav’rite has no friend!

From hence, ye Beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

In the essay on Gray in his Lives of the Poets Dr Johnson was rather severe about this last line. He said:

The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend,” but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been “gold,” the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.

That seems strictly correct, though perhaps it fails to make sufficient allowance for the poem’s mock-whatever nature. Johnson said it “was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle, but it is not a happy trifle.”

In fact, Johnson was rather severe about Gray altogether and about all of his works except for the Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Part of the key to this must surely be that Johnson, who was Gray’s near-contemporary, having worked his way up from Litchfield via Grub Street, took a rather dim view of Gray’s hobnobbing from a rather early age with those much richer than himself, and what Johnson saw as an unseemly affectation of dilettantism or amateurism in one who lacked the means to support this. It probably also should not be overlooked that Johnson was a Tory, whereas Gray’s patrons were Whig grandees.

Gray is usually thought to have been at least temperamentally gay. Johnson also comments on his “effeminacy” and much is made of his homosociality. If there were any doubt, and however vexed the question of a “gay sensibility” may be, this poem would for me be the clincher.

I particularly like the allusion to a cat’s proverbial nine lives in the penultimate stanza.


One Response to “What cat’s averse to fish?”

  1. Legal Eagle Says:

    I love that poem. But then, I love all the poetry you put on your site. It always makes me want to dig out all my old poetry books :)

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