six: T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

All the poetry I read in January was published in the last few years (although most of Inna Lisnianskaya‘s collection was written before the turn of the millennium), so I’ve been feeling the need to read something that’s not contemporary: from the first half of the twentieth century, for preference. The only unread single-volume collection I had on my shelves that fell into this category was T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats, which didn’t quite satisfy my thirst but was good to read nonetheless.

Most of the poems are familiar, either from school poetry collections or through the musical Cats (which I’ve not seen but, like lots of things, have unconsciously absorbed all the same). They were written for Eliot’s godchildren, and their adaptation for the stage is no doubt a contributory factor for the financial significance of the annual T.S. Eliot Prize. It was good fun, but like I said, not quite what I was after; and I was quite confused by the unwieldy rhythm of some of the lines. ‘The Naming of Cats’, ‘The Song of the Jellicles’ and ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ are my favourites:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family’s in bed and asleep,
She slips down the stairs to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice –
Their behaviour’s not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or in the sun or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure ist is due to irregular diet
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets straight to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse-cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment,
So she’s formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do –
And she’s even created a Beetles’ Tattoo.

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers –
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

Thinking about wanting to read more twentieth-century (and earlier) poetry: how to do it, in this book a week approach? Most poets’ work is collected into larger volumes, and I’m quite enjoying the idea of reading single collections at a time (aside from the fact that it would be harder work to read a poet’s entire output in just a week…)

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot (Faber & Faber, 1962)

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1 Response to “six: T.S. Eliot, <i>Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats</i>”



  1. 1 Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems « fifty-two poets Trackback on 11 March, 2008 at 7:32 pm

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