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A Cartoon Tribute To Cats, And The Poets Who Loved Them

Friday, July 26, 2013

Gazing at my collection of "poems by cats" week after week, I wondered: What is it about cats and poetry? Poets gaze out rain-streaked windows, write with fountain pens, drink tea, have cats: So goes the stereotype.

... So starting with Christopher Smart and his cat, Jeoffry.



Smart was a devoutly religious poet in 18th century England, who had the misfortune of being thrown into an insane asylum by his father-in-law. During his confinement, he was alone in the world — except for his beloved cat, Jeoffry, who appeared in a starring role in Jubilate Agno, a long religious poem. All cats seem to believe they are incarnations of the divine, but Smart may have been the first cat owner to see toying with a mouse as proof positive of sacredness.



In the next century, in France, cats found another great poet to write down their praises: Charles Baudelaire, who sparked scandal with his "unwholesome" works and had an enormous influence on later French literature. Baudelaire wrote that cats were "seraphic," as subtle and harmonious as angels, which means his cats must have been much more even-tempered than mine. He also once complained in a letterthat it was impossible to live with his mistress, Jeanne, who drove away his cat and brought in dogs. Quelle horreur!



In Victorian England, the gifted poet Christina Rossetti had a weakness for long haired cats. According to a biographer, her family visited France, and Rossetti's favorite part of the vacation was not Notre Dame, not the Seine — but the Persian cat in a hotel in Normandy. Her own semi-Persian was named Muff, and it might be Muff, under the more poetic pseudonym "Grimalkin," who inspired the feline elegy quoted here.



Edward Lear, nonsense poet, illustrator and prose writer, immortalized his cat, Foss, in verse and in sketches. Foss shows up in Lear's biographies where you might expect a family to appear: Legend has it that Lear had a new house built on exactly the same layout as his old house, so as not to confuse the cat.

Foss wasn't a beautiful cat, with just a stub of a tail and some crazy-looking eyes — at least, so he looks in Lear's many sketches. But the nonsensist adored him. Foss died at the age of 17 and received a funeral; two months later, Lear died as well.



T.S. Eliot wrote the book on cat poetry, as it were. Sure, he did a few other things too — there's that one called "The Waste Land," and some guy's love song, and all that father-of-Modernism stuff. But more people around the world, by far, know him through Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, his collection of cat poems. You might know it better in its adapted form... CATS, the musical.

According to biographers, the absurd names in Practical Cats — like Rum Tum Tugger — are not much zanier than the names Eliot gave his real-life cats, including Pettipaws, George Pushdragon, Noilly Prat and Wiscus.



In one of Elizabeth Bishop's best-known poems, "One Art," she writes that "the art of losing isn't hard to master." She could have followed that up with "the art of calming down an anxious cat, on the other hand, is very hard to master" — but I guess that doesn't scan as well. Still, she did seem to spend a fair amount of time soothing nervous kittens. She wrote a lullaby for her American cat, Minnow, and wrote another poem about her Brazilian cat, Tobias, panicking during lightning storms.



Stevie Smith, English poet, novelist and eccentric, wrote poetry that is nearly impossible to classify: playful but dark, unironic but not quite serious. A startling number of her works are feline in nature.

"I have written many poems about cats," Smith wrote. "I like cats, I like the look of them, I like the feel of a soft fat kitchen cat that folds boneless in one's arms. I could crush a fine cat." (Don't panic: Smith later clarifies that she never actually crushed a cat.) Smith also wrote the mind-bogglingly bizarre text for a book of glamour-shot portraits of cats.



And finally, bringing our survey of cat-loving poets into the contemporary era, the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood is a confirmed cat lover. In 1977, she drew a cartoon of herself covered in cats, writing, "I have a lot of cats. What else can you do with a B.A. these days?" An unofficial survey reports that the sentiment rings true for many English majors today. Atwood's cat poems include moving elegies and playful depictions of everyday life, and some poems that are both: "Oh pillow hog, / with your breath of raw liver, / where are you now?"

Are you convinced that cats and poets are linked by more than popular stereotype? Or are you on the side of Emily Dickinson, who definitely did not take a cat with her to visit the sea?

By: FRANCESCO MARCIULIANO and CAMILA DOMONOSKE
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  Member Comments About This Blog Post:

JOANNS4 7/26/2013 8:06PM

    emoticon emoticon emoticon

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CELLOPLAYER1 7/26/2013 7:19PM

    Giving emoticon is what my emoticon does best. My cat CD was my entertainment when I went htrough chemo. He was just a kitten and full if it.

Comment edited on: 7/26/2013 7:20:48 PM

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PEGGYO 7/26/2013 2:22PM

    emoticon

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TEENYSMOM 7/26/2013 2:08PM

    I HAVE 3 DOGS (MY LITTLE TEENY MARIE JUST WENT TO HEAVEN 2 MONTHS AGO) AND 4 CATS. I LOVE MY SWEET CATS JUST AS MUCH AS A DO MY WONDERFUL DOGS. ONE OF MY CATS, A LONG HAIRED CHOCOLATE POINT SIMEAISE ADORES ME. ANY TIME THAT I GET AT MY COMPUTER, SHE PRANCES HERSELF BACK & FORTH BETWEEN ME AND MY KEYBOARD OR SHE WILL LAY HERSELF ACROSS MY LEFT SHOULDER AND GO TO SLEEP. OFTEN TIMES, IF I AM IN MY RECLINER, SHE WILL LAY ON THE BACK OF THE CHAIR ABOVE MY HEAD AND SLEEP. ON MOST NIGHTS, SHE LAYS ON MY HIP WHEN I FIRST GET INTO BED AND READ. THEN WHEN I TURN OFF THE LIGHT SHE GET UNDER THE COVER RIGHT BY MY NECK.

I LOVED YOUR BLOG. emoticon

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SANDRALEET 7/26/2013 12:41PM

    Cats are graceful and there with you Not as needy as dogs put there purr emoticon is so grate

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PDSLIM 7/26/2013 10:55AM

    emoticon

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NASFKAB 7/26/2013 10:22AM

  love it thanks dear Spark friend

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ANGELBELIEVER 7/26/2013 9:49AM

    Great blog. Thanks!

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IS1GAR 7/26/2013 9:33AM

    emoticon emoticon emoticon Love them!
I have two spoiled cats!
And I emoticon Your Blog!

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AWESOMECHELZ 7/26/2013 9:26AM

    Well, of course, Jean, I LOVE it!! What a great blog! People seem to be more compassionate towards dogs, in general, and when shelters need space, more cats are killed than dogs (happened in my county in Florida). You are showing how special they are through the ages. emoticon

How is your new refrigerator? I hope it is working great for you. It was a lot of fun talking to you yesterday and still praying for you, my friend. emoticon

Love, Chelsea

P.S. Call me anytime to give me the names of the people that you wish for me to notify. If I don't answer right away (e.g., in the bathroom emoticon ), I will call you back.

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JEANNE229 7/26/2013 9:24AM

    I like both...cats AND literature/poetry.

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CHERYL_ANNE 7/26/2013 9:19AM

    emoticon emoticon

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