Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dy’d
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclin’d,
Gaz’d on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
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 purr’d applause.

Still had she gaz’d; but midst the tide
Two beauteous forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue,
Through richest purple, to the view,
Betray’d a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch’d, 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 gulph between;
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil’d.)
The slippery verge her feet beguil’d;
She tumbled headlong in.

Eight times emerging from the flood,
She mew’d to every watery God,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stir’d:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A favourite has no friend.

From hence, ye beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all, that glisters, gold.

“Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” first appeared in Dodsley’s Collection of Poems (1748), and was edited for 1753, the same text that is printed in Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology.  Thomas Gray based this ode on the cat that belonged to his friend, Harry Walpole.  In the poem, Gray offers a hyperbolic description of the cat, who stares at a tub of goldfish in the first stanza.  The feline has a “snowy beard,” and “ears of jet, and emerald eyes” as well as “velvet paws.”  This lofty characterization dramatizes the ode as mock-heroic, alluding to Greek heroes and tales to describe a simple tabby cat.  Gray also compares the cat to Eve, Selima, and Helen of Troy.  The cat seems to be narcissistic and proud, especially as it gazes at the tub, just as Eve stared at her reflection in Paradise Lost.  From a contemporary sensibility, Gray’s comparisons seem sexist and even misogynistic.  When  the cat attempts to snatch a goldfish, her downfall is imminent and she slips into the tub.  The ode serves as a tale of caution: “one false step is ne’er retriev’d” and “nor all, glisters, gold.”  Sometimes, just one incautious misstep is all it takes.  Gray also uses the cat to warn against female pride: “what female heart can gold despise?”  In life, not everything that we are tempted by is fair game, a hard lesson that the cat learns in her tragic fall.

The works of Thomas Gray were first published in book-seller Robert Dodsley’s Collection of Poems in 1748.  The publication of Thomas Gray’s Elegy in 1751 launched the poet into literary fame.  In 1757, Odes was published, featuring poems written in the Pindaric form.  Gray retired at the age of forty.

The biographical information was found in Eighteenth-Century Poetry: The Annotated Anthology.

maddieMaddie Thorpe has twice served as a Shenandoah intern, once as Poem of the Week Editor and once as Social Networking Editor.  She is from Southern California and will take a degree in English from Washington and Lee in spring of 2014.