Two intersecting paths brought me to read T.S. Eliot's whimsical 1939 book of poetry, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." First, I have been reading poetry the past few weeks and was browsing the library for a short, unusual work. Second, I adopted a pet cat -- a little calico -- some months ago after more that 15 years without one. I had almost forgotten how companionable a cat could be. The new kitty inspired my reading of a so-so book or two. Then, the poetry and the cat led me to T.S. Eliot. In his book of practical cats, Old Possum, (1888 -- 1965), a great modernist poet, let his hair down.
This little book, consists of 15 poems with the last one, "Cat Morgan Introduces Himself", added in 1952. The poems are short, rhythmical and rhymed. Eliot intended them for young children. They are delightful poetry in their own right with varied use of language and phrasing and poetic devices.
The book became a famous musical and it is about a varied, eccentric menagerie of cats. The cats are recognizably feline and also manage to stand in for human types. The fourteen original poems tell an organized story with the first poem, "The Naming of Cats" setting the stage and the now penultimate poem, "The Ad-dressing of Cats" summarizing the story and bringing matters to a close. In between are 12 poems featuring a range of now famous cat characters.
Every cat has "THREE DIFFERENT NAMES" we are told in the first poem: its given name, its particular name, and the name the cat keeps to itself. Which of the three names does Eliot use in the poems which follow? The poems tells the stories of cats with names such as Jennyanndots, the old Gumbie cat, the ill-fated Growltiger and his lady Griddlebone, and the obstinate Rum Tum Tugger. Eliot says of Rum Tum Tugger
"For he will do
As he do do
And there's no doing anything about it"!
Further named cats include Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, full of destruction and mischief, Old Deuteronomy, the GREAT RUMPUSCAT, who defuses a dog fight, Mr. Mistoffelees, Macavity, the Mystery Cat,Asparagus, Bustopher Jones, the man about town, and Skimbleshanks, the railway cat. With the possible exception of (Aspara)gus, these names appear to be particular rather than given names of the creatures.
Then, Eliot returns in the 14th poem to offer thoughts on the nature of cats, and their difference from dogs:
"Before a cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream:
A Cat's entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME."
These poems are a treat to read. I was able without much effort to project them on to my cat. The poems also reminded me of my young far away granddaughters. I hope to take and read this little book to them on my next visit.