By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes’ is, along with his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, the most famous poem by Thomas Gray (1716-71). The poem was occasioned by a real-life event involving the cat belonging to Gray’s friend, Horace Walpole (author of the first Gothic novel among other things).
Gray’s poem pokes fun at human sentimentality by describing the death of the cat in deliberately exaggerated terms, likening the cat’s plight to the tragic fall of an epic hero. Here’s a reminder of the poem before we proceed to an analysis of its features.
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes
’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
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 purred applause.
Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched 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 smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
In summary, Gray describes how Walpole’s female cat Selima, having spied some goldfish in a bowl, tries to reach inside and catch the fish. But instead, she ends up falling straight into the bowl and drowns.
Gray ends his ‘Ode’ with a moral message: not everything is as good as it seems, all that glitters is not gold (a sentiment borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), and so ‘beauties’ or females belonging to all species should exercise ‘caution’ because ‘one false step is ne’er’ retrieved’.
Much like an influential poem written earlier in the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ is an example of the mock-heroic poem, because it takes a seemingly ordinary and trivial event (though it’s not trivial for poor Selima!) and describes it using language that is reminiscent of ‘high’ epic heroic poetry, such as we associate with the classical epic poems of Homer and Virgil.
The language is therefore inflated and grander than it needs to be: the ‘lofty vase’ or tub containing the goldfish is described as a ‘lake’ as the cat looks down into the water; the fish are described grandly as ‘genii of the stream’, like guardian spirits looking after the water; in the fourth stanza the cat is a ‘hapless nymph’; the fish are described as having a ‘Tyrian hue’ rather than, more plainly, a reddish colour; when poor Selima tumbles headlong into the bowl, ‘no Nereid stirred’ (i.e. no water-nymph came to help her) as she drowned in ‘the flood’ of water.
Such language cuts two ways: to the small cat, the water – which is quite enough to drown her – really is a flood, and the situation is a grand tragedy to her, at least as she is presented in the poem (with anthropomorphic qualities: she is ‘pensive’, her tail is ‘conscious’). But of course the language is inflated and overly ‘heroic’ to describe such a domestic occurrence, and we are meant to observe the difference between the language used in the poem and the thing being described.
Nevertheless, the poem has been analysed as misogynistic. Why? It suggests, in that final stanza, that women are, like Selima the doomed cat, mere ‘beauties’ who are tempted, with ‘your wandering eyes’, by gold, and will blindly and foolishly follow anything that attracts them without a thought for the consequences (the alliterative ‘heedless hearts’).
‘What female heart can gold despise?’ Gray’s speaker asks, suggesting women are suckers for a bit of nice jewellery, just as this cat cannot help being drawn to the gold fish.
But what perhaps saves the poem from the charge of misogyny is Gray’s light-hearted tone: he is teasing us, as the mock-heroic nature of the poem suggests. Nevertheless, ailurophiles are less likely to laugh at ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ than they are to feel sad about the poor, if foolhardy, cat who inspired it.
If you found this analysis of Gray’s ‘Ode’ interesting, you might also enjoy our discussion of his classic ‘Elegy’.