Blog Post

"Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes": "You will excuse me if I do not begin to cry."

In my last post, I discussed the unfortunate marriage of Emily Dickinson's poems to "The Yellow Rose of Texas."  This post and its successor turn to an equally unlikely pairing of poem and music that produced an extraordinarily serendipitous outcome, one that ought to lead to a recording contract for one of my students.  Before I get there, I'd like to provide a little background.

My tenure at Wisconsin began with a well-intentioned warning from a colleague:  "Poetry is the most unmagnetical of topics to undergraduates."  This, of course, made me more determined to teach a class on eighteenth-century poetry, a period whose poetic output is often dismissed by professional scholars of poetry as unworthy of extended interest because the poetry is thought to lack genuine depth of feeling, a function that the nineteenth century put at the heart of poetic theory, a view that has never entirely been displaced. 

I admit that the poetry felt alienating and less-than-inspiring to many class members in the beginning.  However, the course hit its stride when we reached the poetry of Thomas Gray, who could aptly be described as the eighteenth century's version of the Goth kid.  I have no doubt that black guyliner and matching lipstick would have been two of Gray's inseparable companions had he been born in our own time.  Gray's poetry connected with my students in a way that slighly earlier poets had not.  To my endless delight, one of my students produced a brilliant original musical recording of one of Gray's poems.  I ask my readers' indulgence as I provide a bit of background before I supply the recording itself.  I promise that you will be well rewarded for your patience.

Gray is perhaps the best known of the poets who later came to be called the graveyard school, although the word graveyard did not exist in Gray's lifetime, nor were the graveyard poets ever part of a group that could even loosely be called a school.  ("Churchyard" or "cemetary" would have been period-appropriate designations for a burial ground.)   These authors were linked by a poetic preoccupation with melancholy nocturnal wanderings through tomb and gloom; their shared moral, "the paths of glory lead but to the grave," generally takes a back seat to the pleasure these poems take in luxuriating in descriptions of earthly horrors. 

In 1747 Thomas Gray commemorated the passing of his friend Horace Walpole's cat with the tragicomic poem "Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes." Walpole had asked Gray for an epitaph for his kitty; Gray responded with a poem modeled on the classical elegy, the first verse of which Walpole had engraved on the Chinese vase (the "tub" of the poem's title) in which the dearly departed cat met her watery end.

Horace Walpole, the cat's chief mourner, is now best known as the author of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto and as the builder of a mock-Gothic residence, Strawberry Hill.  The fateful vase with Gray's verse inscribed still stands on display in Walpole's mini-castle.   It might be safe to say that Walpole was to the English novel what Gray was to English poetry: both inspired a vogue for all things Gothic. 

 Perhaps needless to say, Walpole had much money and an equal portion of leisure time.  Horace Walpole was the younger son of Robert Walpole, who is generally considered the first Prime Minister of England, though he did not bear that title.  Robert Walpole rose to power during the absentee kingship of George I, who was neither English nor  inclined to spend any time in England.  George I's qualification for the royal office stemmed mainly from the distant blood-ties he bore to previous royals and the fact that he was certifiably Protestant.  The ability to speak English was not a job requirement. 

Incidentally, it is Horace Walpole who gave us the delightful word "serendipity," a coinage that he derived from a fairy tale set in Serindip, a former name of Sri Lanka, in which the characters "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."  

Were the title of Gray's poem alone not sufficient indication of the poem's gentle mockery, Gray's earlier letter to Walpole gives us a fuller picture of the poem's tone:

 

As one ought to be particularly careful to avoid blunders in a compliment of condolence, it would be a sensible satisfaction to me (before I testify my sorrow, and the sincere part I take in your misfortune) to know for certain who it is I lament.  I knew Zara and Selima (Selima was it? or Fatima?), or rather I knew them both together for I cannot justly say which was which.  Then as to your handsome Cat, the name you distinguish her by, I am no less at at a loss, as well knowing one's handsome cat is always the cat one likes best; or if one be alive and the other dead, it is usually the latter that is the handsomest.  Besides, if the point were never so clear, I hope you do not think me so ill-bred or so imprudent as to forfeit all my interest in the survivor: oh, no!  I would rather seem to mistake, and imagine to be sure it must be the tabby one that had met with this sad accident.  Till this affair is a little better determined, you will excuse me if I do not begin to cry.

 

You, dear readers, will also forgive me if I ask you to postpone your tears until my next post, which will give us all the requisite time to remember the name of our dear friend's favorite cat.