I thought about
inflicting presenting Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard for my usual Poem-of-a-Saturday, but maybe I’ll save it for the bleaker days of November. Instead, something a little lighter, an ode for Horace Walpole‘s dead cat. Augustan English rhetoric, a sort of macabre charm and an anodyne moral or two: what more could you want? (The annotated poem can be found here. Illustrations by William Blake, somewhat after the poem was published. The full set to accompany the poem are here.)
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes
‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dy’d
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclin’d,
Gaz’d on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw, and purr’d applause.
Still had she gaz’d; but midst the tide
Two beauteous forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue,
Through richest purple, to the view,
Betray’d a golden gleam.
The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch’d, in vain, to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulph between;
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil’d.)
The slippery verge her feet beguil’d;
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood,
She mew’d to every watery God,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stir’d:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A favourite has no friend.
From hence, ye beauties, undeceiv’d,
Know, one false step is ne’er retriev’d,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all, that glisters, gold.
— Thomas Gray (1747)