Today’s column celebrates cats and dogs in poetry and will do its best to maintain neutrality. In my lifetime I have enjoyed the company of some wonderful dogs and some marvelous cats, often simultaneously. Poets, who tend to be emotional in their beliefs, are not always so even-handed, which I don’t mind if their partiality produces interesting poetry.
A flip of the coin brings us first to Lord Byron (1788-1824) who loved animals and birds of all shapes and sizes. At various times his household included geese, monkeys, a fox, a badger, an eagle, a crow, a heron, numerous peacocks, and a goat with a game-leg. When he attended Trinity College, Cambridge, dogs were not permitted on campus, so he kept a tame bear in his room.
But the animal love of his life was his Newfoundland, Boatswain, actually born in and brought over from Newfoundland. If you were to visit Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, you would see statuary throughout the gardens and grounds, but nothing as imposing as Boatswain’s burial monument. In building it, Byron left room for himself to be buried next to his dog, but authorities insisted that he be placed in the family vault at a nearby church.
Boatswain is described as having all the virtues of man without his vices, and in a surprisingly simple verse, Byron said:
‘Tis sweet to hear the watch-dog’s honest bark
Bay deep-mouth’d welcome as we draw near home;
‘Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming, and look brighter when we come.
For the record, Boatswain performed one other service for his master. Lord Byron received many letters from female admirers asking for a lock of his hair. Recent DNA analysis shows that Byron often responded with clippings from the dog.
* * *
As a champion of cats, no one can begin to touch Thomas Stearns Eliot, better known as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). He produced a whole collection of cat poems under the title “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” later to be the basis for a monumentally successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Sidebar: When Lloyd Webber first played “Memory” for his father, also a composer, he asked if it sounds like something borrowed from Puccini. The father replied, “I think it sounds like a million dollars.” And he was right.
For T.S. Eliot the naming of cats was a challenging but rewarding occupation. His own cats were named Pettipaws, Wiscus, and George Pushdragon. And in the opening poem of the Old Possum collection he tells us how names are selected and administered from the cat’s point of view.
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum —
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
To which Eliot added:
Your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.
Quite right. Cats and dogs are not interchangeable. Nowhere in history does it say that Dick Whittington had a dog that helped him become Lord Mayor of London or that Balto was a cat who led his feline sled team on a 54 mile rescue mission through biting blizzards to Nome, Alaska. Here are the real heroes.
Once more, from T.S. Eliot:
Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.
So true. I don’t recall my mother ever saying, “What’s the matter? Dog got your tongue?” And in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S, Pinafore” it just wouldn’t seem right to have those sailors singing:
Carefully on tiptoe stealing,
Breathing gently as we may,
Every step with caution feeling,
We will softly steal away.
(Captain stamps — Chord.)
All. (much alarmed)
Goodness me —
Why, what was that?
It was the dog!
It was — it was the dog!
Captain. (producing a dog-o’-nine-tails)
They’re right, it was the dog!
* * *
If we were to broaden our tribute a little we would include Dr. Seuss and his “Cat in a Hat” stories, Charlie Brown’s Snoopy and that trio of cinematic wonder dogs: Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Toto. But in classical poetry, pride of place goes to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and her spaniel named Flush. Witness these stanzas:
Loving friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature !
Underneath my stroking hand,
Startled eyes of hazel bland
Kindling, growing larger, —
Up thou leapest with a spring,
Full of prank and curvetting,
Leaping like a charger.
Leap ! thy broad tail waves a light ;
Leap ! thy slender feet are bright,
Canopied in fringes.
Leap — those tasselled ears of thine
Flicker strangely, fair and fine,
Down their golden inches
But of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary, —
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.
Roses, gathered for a vase,
In that chamber died apace,
Beam and breeze resigning —
This dog only, waited on,
Knowing that when light is gone,
Love remains for shining.
Therefore to this dog will I,
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favour !
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore, and for ever.
* * *
What about the special and private interaction between poets and their pets? This is from England’s most popular living poet, Roger McGough
Girls are simply the prettiest things
My cat and i believe
And we’re always saddened
When it’s time for them to leave
We watch them titivating
(that often takes a while)
And though they keep us waiting
My cat and i just smile
We like to see them to the door
Say how sad it couldn’t last
Then my cat and i go back inside
And talk about the past.
And you can always count on Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) to put her relationship with her dog in perspective.
Such glorious faith as fills your limpid eyes,
Dear little friend of mine, I never knew.
All-innocent are you, and yet all-wise.
(For Heaven’s sake, stop worrying that shoe!)
You look about, and all you see is fair;
This mighty globe was made for you alone.
Of all the thunderous ages, you’re the heir.
(Get off the pillow with that dirty bone!)
A skeptic world you face with steady gaze;
High in young pride you hold your noble head,
Gayly you meet the rush of roaring days.
(Must you eat puppy biscuit on the bed?)
Lancelike your courage, gleaming swift and strong,
Yours the white rapture of a winged soul,
Yours is a spirit like a Mayday song.
(God help you, if you break the goldfish bowl!)
“Whatever is, is good” – your gracious creed.
You wear your joy of living like a crown.
Love lights your simplest act, your every deed.
(Drop it, I tell you – put that kitten down!)
You are God’s kindliest gift of all – a friend.
Your shining loyalty unflecked by doubt,
You ask but leave to follow to the end.
(Couldn’t you wait until I took you out?)
* * *
Final Note. The Award for Best Dog Collar Poetry goes to Alexander Pope (1688-1744). He presented a dog to the King who had a countryside palace in Kew Gardens. To ease the dog’s introduction to the Court, Pope engraved the collar to read:
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Now, in our equal-opportunity video, Jill Tanner performs T.S. Eliot’s “Gus: the Theatre Cat” and then Cynthia Herman presents Thomas Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?”