By Dr Oliver Tearle
We’ve compiled several cat-related posts in the past, including our favourite facts about writers and cats, so thought it was about time we selected some of our favourite poems about cats. What are the best cat-themed poems? There are plenty to choose from, so we’ve tried to make the ensuing list a mix of the serious and comic, the moving the amusing. Below, then, is our choice of the greatest cat poems we think everyone should read, along with a little about the poem and a link to where it can be read.
1. Anonymous, ‘Pangur Bán‘.
This Old Irish poem was written by a monk about his cat, in around the 9th century, and found in a monastery in Austria. (Pangur Bán is the name of the monk’s cat.) Describing the life of the monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, ‘Pangur Bán’ has everything for the cat-lover and book-lover. Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.
2. Emily Dickinson, ‘She sights a Bird – she chuckles‘.
She sights a Bird—she chuckles—
She flattens—then she crawls—
She runs without the look of feet—
Her eyes increase to Balls …
This is the 507th poem in Dickinson’s Complete Poems, and – as so often with Emily Dickinson – the poem perfectly captures in short, telegrammatic style the essence of the thing being described.
It took a genius like Dickinson to convey the way a cat flattens itself before crawling towards its prey, and the way the cat’s ‘eyes increase to Balls’ is, as ever with Dickinson, superbly well put. What more can one say?
3. Edward Thomas, ‘A Cat‘.
She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned.
In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails …
Thomas’s poetry is marked by its unsentimentalised view of nature, and this is a fine example of his direct and matter-of-fact style that nevertheless summons an emotional response from the reader – Thomas hates the cat because it kills the birds Thomas loves, but at the same time he can realise that the same act which makes him loathe the cat – its killing of thrushes and blackbirds – is also something that humans have carried out on the cat’s own kittens, which have been ‘duly drowned’.
The juxtaposition of these two killings raises questions about nature and death which the poem needs only hint at to achieve its effects.
4. Thomas Gray, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes‘.
Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in …
Thomas Gray is remembered chiefly for three poems, although he was a much better-known figure in his own day (1716-1771). His ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ is still widely anthologised, and his ‘Ode on the Distant Prospect of Eton College’ is remembered for its line ‘where ignorance is bliss, / ‘Tis folly to be wise’.
His other enduring poem is this, written about the cat belonging to Gray’s friend Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel; Walpole’s cat did indeed drown in 1747.
5. T. S. Eliot, ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat‘.
One of the more surprising sides to T. S. Eliot is not just his love of cats (he owned many himself with names including George Pushdragon, Noilly Prat, Pettipaws, Tantomile, and Wiscus) but the fact that he wrote a volume of nonsense verses about cats, for his godchildren. This in turn inspired the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats.
‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ is one of the best-known poems in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, about a feline master criminal (probably loosely based on Conan Doyle‘s Professor Moriarty – Eliot was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan). Explore our pick of Eliot’s best poems here.
6. Anna Seward, ‘An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy‘.
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 …
This poem first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1792, and manages to convey the cat’s voice in a manner that is ironic and amusing but also touching and poignant, since the cat realises that she will miss her master when she has died.
7. Christopher Smart, from Jubilate Agno (‘My Cat Jeoffry‘).
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself …
Christopher ‘Kit’ Smart (1722-1771) was confined to a mental asylum for a number of years, and it was during his confinement that Smart wrote Jubilate Agno (‘Rejoice in the Lamb’), a religious poem composed between 1759 and 1763. (The poem was only first published in 1939.) Jeoffrey was Smart’s only companion during his time in the asylum, and Smart wrote this touching celebration of his feline friend. Jeoffrey has been called the ‘most famous cat in the whole history of English literature’ by one of Smart’s biographers, Neil Curry.
8. Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat‘.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar …
What list of cat poems would be complete without Edward Lear’s nonsense classic? Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ in 1868 and it was first published in 1871. He revealed in a little-known sequel to the poem that the cat was indeed the female in the relationship, which makes it even more interesting that it is the cat that proposes the idea of marriage to the owl.
Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for a friend’s daughter, Janet Symonds, who was born in 1865 and was three years old when Lear wrote the poem. Janet was the daughter of the poet John Addington Symonds (1840-93).
9. Charles Baudelaire, ‘Cats‘.
Like the Pangur Bán poem, Baudelaire’s ‘Cats’ brings scholars and cats together. The description of ‘giant sphinxes stretched in depths of solitude’ is a nice description of our aloof feline companions.
10. Stevie Smith, ‘The Galloping Cat‘.
Somehow, every Stevie Smith poem is a cat poem. Her work is a curious mixture of energy, humour, quirkiness, naivety (false naivety, as Philip Larkin recognised), wisdom, simplicity, and profundity.
‘The Galloping Cat’ is a prime example: in this poem, the cat describes its energetic movements as it slips on a banana skin, confronts a foe that isn’t there, and ends up being stroked bald. The link provided above includes a good analysis of the poem.
If you’d like to go in search of more great cat poems, the beautifully produced anthology, The Great Cat: Poems About Cats (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), contains many more feline classics, including W. B. Yeats’s Minnaloushe, Christopher Smart’s Jeoffry, Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, T. S. Eliot’s Rum Tum Tugger, and William Blake’s Tyger.
Continue your cat-themed literary odyssey with our pick of the best short stories featuring cats, these great quotations from writers about cats, these classic books for cat-lovers, and these fantastic pictures of cats and books. Or if you’d rather seek out man’s best friend, you might enjoy these poems about dogs, including Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Matthew Arnold‘s Geist, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Flush.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.