25 July 2013

Poetry Thursday - Thomas Gray, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat...

See more of William Blake's illustrations to the poem here.

Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

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.
Found here, where you'll also get a bit of background to the poem.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was launched into literary fame by the publication of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard in 1751. He was the only one of 12 children to survive infancy, and was a delicate and scholarly boy. He went on the Grand Tour with his friend from Eton, Horace Walpole, but they fell out and parted in Tuscany. Living in Cambridge, Gray set out on his own programme of literary study, and became a fellow of two colleges (in succession). Though he published only some 1,000 lines in his lifetime, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1757 - he refused it.

My connection with this poem consists of coming across it in the Fitzwilliam Museum, way back when I was working in the university engineering department, practically next door, and would often spend my lunch hour in the museum. It was in one of the cases of manuscripts, and was something I vaguely remembered reading at school. "A favourite has no friend" is the line that stands out for me (though "What cat's averse to fish?" comes a close second). Back in Cambridge, reading the poem in Gray's handwriting, my young self felt very connected to this poet, but only now have I learned anything about his life.

1 comment:

June said...

"What cat's averse to fish?" -- that made me laugh out loud. Love the satire (and the "dumb" cat) -- nine lives, indeed:-)