I majored 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 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. It’s one every cat lover should read. 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. 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.
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 Famous 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.
And years after I first found the allusion to the yellow cat in Prufrock, when I lost my orange 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. And as I write poetry about my own cats, I gratefully return to Eliot and my first introduction to the use of imagery in writing; 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 Twain and Hemingway along with other authors on the Winn Feline Foundation blog in “Famous Cat Loving Authors and Pet Names”.
In future postings, I’ll cover a few other cat lovers whose cats appear in their writings including Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Colette among others.