A summary of a curious cat poem
The poetry of Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is marked by an unsentimental view of nature, and the short poem ‘A Cat’ is a fine example of his direct and matter-of-fact style that nevertheless summons an emotional response from the reader. What a close analysis of Thomas’s poetry often reveals is a razor-sharp eye for detail and an ability to make straightforward statements which nevertheless have the feel of great poetry, and ‘A Cat’ is no different in this regard from Thomas’s better-known poetry, such as ‘Adlestrop’ or ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’.
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.
I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.
‘A Cat’ offers, in summary, the poet’s mixed feelings about the cat. 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’. Nature is a harsh world, and the cat is only acting on instinct – the hunting instinct that is part of its nature – when it kills the birds. But by the same token, we humans cannot be overrun with the cat’s litter of kittens, so think little of killing them rather than see them starve (or grow up to run around chasing and killing even more birds).
We begin with a stanza that immediately wrong-foots us with a trick of rhyme (compare Thomas’s ‘Tall Nettles’ for another such tour de force). It looks as though ‘owned’ and ‘drowned’ will form a perfect rhyme, but instead they are mere eye-rhyme, and the shock of discovering the fate of the kittens (especially accompanied by the matter-of-fact ‘duly’) is accompanied by the surprise of finding we have been denied a proper rhyme. The cat isn’t even given a name, even though the children came up with one for her; she has an owner, but the poet couldn’t or doesn’t say who it was; and despite this, he is able to declare that ‘no one loved’ the animal. The predatory nature of the cat is made plain, but as well as eating the ‘birds of bright voice and plume and flight’, she was also happy to munch on scraps out of buckets. It’s as if Thomas is more offended by this lack of discernment: the cat does not know what beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding creatures she kills when she hunts the birds, since she’s equally at home drinking milky slop from a pail. It’s the senselessness of it that seems to grate with the poet.
Yet Thomas is careful not to say too much about this. It’s clear, however, that he thinks the killing of the birds is pointless and senseless. And he does tell us that he hated the cat, when we get to the final stanza. Not only that, but note the seemingly redundant repetition or tautology at the start of the third stanza (‘loathed’ and ‘hated’ are virtually synonymous, but Thomas gives us both, to be balanced against the statement in the first stanza that ‘no one loved’ the cat).
Edward Thomas wrote ‘A Cat’ in April 1915, a few months before he enlisted and went on to write some very different poems, such as ‘Rain’ and ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’, about his experience fighting in the war. But its stark depiction of the world of nature as it is, its concise description of small details, and the matter-of-fact style are all part of what makes Edward Thomas the poet he is.
Edward Thomas’s ‘A Cat’ might be productively compared with this Emily Dickinson poem about a cat hunting a bird.