A little gem of a cat poem – Anna Seward’s touching ‘An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy’
Anna Seward (1742-1809) was an English poet who was known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ and even ‘th’immortal Muse of Britain‘. She knew those other great Lichfield figures of the age, Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson, who often met at the Bishop’s Palace where Seward lived (her father was a prebendary in the local church). A precocious child, she was taught to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope at the age of three. Sir Walter Scott would later be responsible for publishing Seward’s poetry. She never married, but lived with her father at the Bishop’s Palace until he died in 1790; thereafter, she remained at the Palace until her death 19 years later.
‘An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy’ was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1792. It’s occasionally included in English poetry anthologies but isn’t exactly widely known – it’s a little half-hidden gem of a poem. It’s got the ironic and humorous edge associated with other poets of the eighteenth century who made use of heroic (or rhyming) couplets, such as Alexander Pope, but it’s also touching and poignant, since the cat realises that she will miss her master when she has died and gone to another place. (We’re reminded of another eighteenth-century poet, Samuel Johnson, and his cat Hodge here.) The idea that Selima, the cat, imagines a heaven where fish are easy prey and birds cannot fly away from their feline predator is amusing but also endearing. Isn’t that what cats are – amusing and endearing? (Cat-haters need read no further!) Here is ‘An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy’, then.
Years saw me still Acasto’s mansion grace,
The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race;
Before him frisking through the garden glade,
Or at his feet in quiet slumber laid;
Praised for my glossy back of zebra streak,
And wreaths of jet encircling round my neck;
Soft paws that ne’er extend the clawing nail,
The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail;
Now feeble age each glazing eyeball dims,
And pain has stiffened these once supple limbs;
Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains,
And e’en the ninth creeps languid through my veins.
Much sure of good the future has in store,
When on my master’s hearth I bask no more,
In those blest climes, where fishes oft forsake
The winding river and the glassy lake;
There, as our silent-footed race behold
The crimson spots and fins of lucid gold,
Venturing without the shielding waves to play,
They gasp on shelving banks, our easy prey:
While birds unwinged hop careless o’er the ground,
And the plump mouse incessant trots around,
Near wells of cream that mortals never skim,
Warm marum creeping round their shallow brim;
Where green valerian tufts, luxuriant spread,
Cleanse the sleek hide and form the fragrant bed.
Yet, stern dispenser of the final blow,
Before thou lay’st an aged grimalkin low,
Bend to her last request a gracious ear,
Some days, some few short days, to linger here;
So to the guardian of his tabby’s weal
Shall softest purrs these tender truths reveal:
‘Ne’er shall thy now expiring puss forget
To thy kind care her long-enduring debt,
Nor shall the joys that painless realms decree
Efface the comforts once bestowed by thee;
To countless mice thy chicken-bones preferred,
Thy toast to golden fish and wingless bird;
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.’
More feline literature can be found in our pick of the best cat poems.
Image: Engraving of Anna Seward (author unknown, 1799), Wikimedia Commons.