Litter-ary Cats: T.S. Eliot

One of the reference photos for a portrait of my long-ago orange boy, Allegro.
One of the reference photos for a portrait of my long-ago orange boy, Allegro.

After much indecision I ended up majoring in English in college, and when in my junior year I studied Modern Poetry and encountered the following lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

…I thought I was imagining a descriptive that sounded an awful lot like a cat.

But modern poets didn’t write about cats, I knew that for sure.

The professor pointed out, however, that there was a section of cat imagery in this poem along with isolated lines here and there, and noted that T.S. Eliot regularly used feline imagery in his poetry. I remember he seemed reluctant to admit this fact. I was thrilled.

I knew there was a reason I liked this poet’s work from the first word (and still do). And that was even before I knew about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. My professors barely mentioned that one. Imagine a world-renowned, much-respected modern poet writing a book of silly cat poetry.

But write it he did, and it’s one that every cat lover should read. When I found this volume, I knew T.S. Eliot was a complete cat lover.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.

Now, does that sound like something you’d sing to your kitty when you were sure no one else could hear? And I guess it was moving enough to inspire Andrew Lloyd Webber to write one of history’s most popular  musicals, Cats, which is based on this book. However, even if you have seen the musical I recommend every cat lover read the original book. Webber took liberties with the original story, including the little portion about Jellicle cats I’ve included above which are truly only black and white cats, and that and the entire story make a little more sense when you read it in the original form.

black cat bathing on bed
Don’t look!

I don’t have a recommended volume—mine is incorporated in a huge heavy anthology of Eliot’s works which I treasure, but you can find a link to one of the original volumes of Old Possum in Google books in which the pages are displayed by permission of publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You don’t get all of the book or even the good parts, but it will give you a taste of what the book is all about and you’ll see the illustrations from that era, really cool and inspiring to me.

Better yet, visit your local public library where you’ll usually find at least one published copy of the book in either children’s or adult’s literature. The illustrations are wonderful in every version. In fact, find more than one!

One of the Fantastic Four, little Jelly Bean, is, in fact, a Jellicle Cat, hence his name, in part; also his nose looks like a shiny black jelly bean. Silly me. But he is very pleasant to hear when he caterwauls in his soft, wandering little voice.

But Webber and Trevor Nunn didn’t stop with Old Possum. They also used imagery and text from two other of Eliot’s poems for the production’s big hit, “Memory” and took a lot of inspiration for the lyrics from Eliot’s other poetry. Despite the fact the musical is about cats and much of it can be taken lightly, it’s about cats’ rough and often tragic life on the streets and much of Eliot’s poetry reflects the often rough and tragic lives of humans, with a liberal sprinkling of metaphorical cat hair.

The lyrics and no doubt inspiration for “Memory” come from two of Eliot’s other poems, Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy NightWith a quick read into each of these poems you’ll find imagery and actual lyrics used in “Memory” as well a few more feline images and references. This article describes all the references in the cited poems; this article on Wikipedia offers a little more about the lyricists and melody.

And years after I first found the allusion to the yellow cat in Prufrock (above), when I lost my yellow cat on a soft October night when he was the young age of 10, I remembered this verse and thought how much it reminded me of my Allegro, and still does, years later. I look forward to finally painting his portrait on the piano bench, using the photo at the beginning of this article, and a painting from the photo, below.

Allegro relaxing in a sunbeam.
Allegro relaxing in a sunbeam.

And as I write poetry about my own cats and move to subjects beyond I gratefully return to Eliot and my first introduction to the use of imagery in writing. In much the same way observing my cats taught me about the skills of visual representation, no other subject could have taught me the delicate lesson of dancing around technical description with words and sounds and rhythms to create a vision for my reader than to use something so visually inspiring to me, and which I loved so much, as a cat.

You may not find too many other cats in literature, but finding authors who lived with and were inspired by cats are frequent to the point of common. Mark Twain, author of the famous quote about crossing cats and humans and degrading the cat, had many cats who don’t appear in his fiction but do appear in his essays. Ernest Hemingway kept many cats in his Florida home, famously polydactyl (possessing multiple toes), the descendants of whom still live on the property he occupied in Florida.


Read about other Litter-ary Cats.

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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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