Paws in Posting
Yesterday, melanoma finally took Minerva, the little Siberian cat.
She was a quiet, sweet little person, who, when she was younger, used to sleep on the back of the couch where I often work, and I’d sometimes hear a cheerful prrrrr as I was typing. She will be much missed.
In her memory, I was thinking what I might do and, as this is a literary kind of blog, I began to think about cats in books and poems I’ve read.
Cats, as far as is currently known, have been with us in the Western world since perhaps 7500BC—in other words, from the Neolithic Era–a complete cat burial being discovered, along with a human, on the island of Cyprus (here’s a really interesting article on the subject: https://www.thearchaeologist.org/blog/neolithic-cat-burial-in-cyprus-the-oldest-known-evidence-of-cat-taming )
It used to be believed that the Egyptians were the original domesticators and it’s clear that, from everything from wall paintings
to large numbers of cat mummies
to numerous different goddesses with feline features like
and the best known, Bastet,
that cats were part of Egyptian daily life. (For a fun article on feline divinities in Egypt see: http://www.landofpyramids.org/cat-goddesses.htm )
The first cat piece—a poem—which comes to mind, however is much later in time and is dedicated to his cat, Pangur Ban, “Pangur the White”, by the 9th-century AD Irish monk who owned her. It appears in what is called the “Reichenauer Primer”, a collection of all sorts of information, like grammar texts and Latin hymns, but it also contains poems in Old Irish, including this one. Here’s the page with “Pangur Ban” on the left-hand side, at the bottom.
And here’s the first English translation, by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan, from 1903:
I and Pangur Bán, each of us two at his special art:
his mind at hunting (mice), my own mind is in my special craft.
I love to rest—better than any fame—at my booklet with diligent science:
not envious of me is Pangur Bán: he himself loves his childish art.
When we are—tale without tedium—in our house, we two alone,
we have—unlimited (is) feat-sport—something to which to apply our acuteness.
It is customary at times by feat of valour, that a mouse sticks in his net,
and for me there falls into my net a difficult dictum with hard meaning.
His eye, this glancing full one, he points against the wall-fence:
I myself against the keenness of science point my clear eye, though it is very feeble.
He is joyous with speedy going where a mouse sticks in his sharp-claw:
I too am joyous, where I understand a difficult dear question.
Though we are thus always, neither hinders the other:
each of us two likes his art, amuses himself alone.
He himself is the master of the work which he does every day:
while I am at my own work, (which is) to bring difficulty to clearness.
(This is a flat prose translation, but to give you a little flavor of the rhythm of the original, the opening goes roughly something like this—my own version–
I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
Each has craft which he is at—
To hunting mice he puts his mind
While bookish meaning’s what I find.)
I make a big hop here from the 9th century to the 18th, and what must have been a rather peculiar, but perhaps quite lovable man, the English poet, Christopher Smart (1722-1771).
His “cat work” is in a remarkable free verse poem, written between 1758 and 1763, which sat in manuscript
until its first publication, in 1939, under the odd title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam. “Bedlam” is shorthand for a series of London-area asylums for the mentally disturbed, originally part of the medieval Priory of Our Lady of Bethlehem, and located at Bishopsgate, just beyond London’s wall.
Here is its incarnation at the time of the composition of Smart’s poem.
Smart had, indeed, been committed to an asylum–not to this one, but rather to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics,
but the point was being clearly made by the editor, W.F. Stead, that this was a poem composed by someone possibly not in his right mind. There is scholarly argument as to why Smart was in any asylum, but, luckily for us, he was not alone, as his cat, Jeoffry accompanied him and his observations of Jeoffry in the manuscript of Jubilate Agno (Smart’s title) form the basis of our second selection. It’s a very long passage, so I’ll only include an excerpt, but point you to this website, where you will find the whole manuscript and all the lines about Jeoffry in Fragment B, 4: https://www.pseudopodium.org/repress/jubilate/
“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.”
For me, there is a playfulness in this and in the other lines which suggests that, if Smart was mad, he still retained both a powerful mind and a great creativity, besides a deep affection for his cat, viewing him as much a fellow creature in the world as the anonymous Irish monk saw Pangur Ban.
But madness brings us to a third literary–Victorian–cat.
This is, of course, the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll/C. L. Dodgson’s (1832-1898)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865),
in which the cat makes several appearances, each time both mocking and disturbing.
“ The Cat only grinned when it saw
Alice. It looked good-natured, she
thought; still it had very long claws
and a great many teeth, so she felt that
it ought to be treated with respect.
‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether
it would like the name; however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased
so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on, ‘would you tell me, please, which way
I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where – ’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘ – so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
Alice felt that this could not be
denied, so she tried another question,
‘What sort of people live about here?’
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said,
waving its right paw round, ‘lives
a Hatter; and in that direction,’ wav-
ing the other paw, ‘lives a March
Hare. Visit either you like: they’re
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice re-
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat, ‘we’re all mad
here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come
Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went
on, ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’
‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You
‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags
its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when
I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’
‘I call it purring, not growling,’ said Alice.
‘Call it what you like,’ said the Cat, ‘Do you play croquet with the Queen
‘I should like it very much,’ said Alice, ‘but I haven’t been invited yet.’
‘You’ll see me there,’ said the Cat and vanished.
Alice was not much surprised at this, she was getting so used to queer things
happening. While she was looking at the place where it had been, it suddenly
‘By-the-bye, what became of the baby?’ said the Cat, ‘I’d nearly forgotten to
‘It turned into a pig,’ Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural
‘I thought it would,’ said the Cat and vanished again.
Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and
after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was
said to live. ‘I’ve seen hatters before,’ she said to herself, ‘the March Hare will be
much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at
least not so mad as it was in March.’ As she said this, she looked up, and there
was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.
‘Did you say pig or fig?’ said the Cat.
‘I said pig,’ replied Alice, ‘and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and van-
ishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.’
‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this
time it vanished quite slowly, begin-
ning with the end of the tail, and
ending with the grin which remained
some time after the rest of it had gone.
‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat with-
out a grin,’ thought Alice, ‘but a grin
without a cat! It’s the most curious
thing I ever saw in my life!’ “
(Apologies for the odd placement on the page—I had hoped to include the illustrations, which are set into the text, but I’m afraid that my cut-and-paste appears to have been heavier on the cut than the paste! Here’s a LINK, by the way, to a painstaking digital version of that first, 1865 edition: https://www.adobe.com/be_en/active-use/pdf/Alice_in_Wonderland.pdf )
If we jump from the Victorians to the 20th century, there are lots of possibilities:
George Herriman’s (1880-1944)
surreal Krazy Kat comic strip from 1913 to 1944
or Don Marquis’ (1878-1937)
newspaper column chronicle from 1916 to the 1930s of the free-verse poet–and cockroach–Archy and his girlfriend, Mehitabel, the cat, a reincarnation of Cleopatra.
We might even include T.S. Eliot’s (1888-1965)
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939),
but I want to end with one more item from the 20th century. It’s a remark of Gandalf’s about Aragorn, which I hope will be true as well of Minerva, as she finds her way perhaps to the goddess Bastet and a new rebirth:
“He will not go astray—if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Beruthiel.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)
As ever, thanks for reading.
Remember that all cats are not, indeed, grey, in the dark,
And know, as well, that there will be