By Jack Peachum
I recently took the opportunity to comment on the poem “Ode On A Favourite Cat (Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes)” by Thomas Gray at Poemhunter. Don’t be put off by the title– I said it there and I’ll say it again– this is one of the jewels of English poetry. It is a poem meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
From its mock heroic opening lines:
Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow…
to the witty:
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Salima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
At once, we know we are in the presence of a master of irony. The tone is what’s important here– the poet has placed himself at a proper distance from his work. There will be little of misguided sentiment in this poem.
Rigorously constructed, a tribute to the neo-classicism of its age, the work bespeaks what can be done in a limited formal style. Would that the New Formalists of the 20th century (pax, Richard Wilbur) could have learned something from this poem!
Unfortunately, these verses are not well known and seldom read by students and pundits. In fact, they are not included in most anthologies – almost never mentioned even in the classroom. And all this neglect is probably the fault of William Wordsworth and Samuel Johnson, both of whom sullied Gray’s reputation.
But then, we must remember that Dr. Johnson was a man who could not tolerate music of any kind: “– A fart from the guts of some great instrument!– “, indicating something lacking in his aesthetic moral fiber.
In public – that is, in his writings – Johnson could say of Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard”, giving faint praise, “The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”
But in literary company, the good doctor sneered, dismissing the poem, saying to Boswell that Gray was “a dull fellow – dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.”
Now, I have the greatest respect for Johnson, but posterity will have its revenge.
He was damning a poem which was at once a hit and is today one of the most beloved and frequently quoted poems in the English language. Nearly three-quarters of its 128 lines appear in the Oxford Book of Quotations.
And when was the last time you read any of Johnson’s poetry?
As for Wordsworth, when we speak of dullness in poetry, I must admit – I immediately think of the old Fraud of the Lake Country. Yes, yes, I know – generations have venerated him, or pretended to anyway. A poet I admire highly, Thomas Hardy, supposedly found inspiration in his verses. I doubt that. Hardy is much too clever to have gotten anything from a prig like William.
In my own humble opinion, if ever there was anybody in the English language who was always dull, it was Wordsworth.
About Gray, he wrote, “Gray failed as a poet, not because he took too much pains, and so extinguished his animation, but because he had very little of that fiery quality to begin with.”
Fiery quality– from Wordsworth? Am I the only one who finds that incredible?
I herewith challenge anyone – policeman, pundit, pedant, or serial killer, anyone – to find two lines in all of Wordsworth which have the wit and clarity of two lines from the The Ode.
As an aside, this was a poet who dismissed his friend Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” thusly: “–the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on…. I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.”
Wordsworth included the poem in Lyrical Ballads, despite Coleridge’s objections, and criticized:
“The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects… the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being… he does not act, but is continually acted upon… the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other… the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated.”
Perhaps a man that far off the mark is more to be pitied than chastised.
However, some of the fault for Johnson’s charges of dullness against Gray may lie with the man himself – a shy retiring, scholarly sort, an English academic, in the worst sense of the word. Most of the rest of his work is not to the modern taste – nothing droll, and very dry.
He was so self-critical and fearful of failure that he only published 13 poems during his lifetime – and he once wrote that he feared his collected works would be “mistaken for the works of a flea.” His contemporary, Horace Walpole (to whom the cat belonged), commented, “He never wrote anything easily but things of Humour.”
In his defense, Gray was writing during the neoclassic period and, excepting Dryden and Pope, well, there wasn’t a lot of chuckle in English poetry during those decades.
Today, specialists read this stuff, not many of the rest of us – and having commented so, I wish I could take it back. Alas, it is true. Students are exposed to this kind of verse in school and never approach it again. Then again, maybe it’s the fault of the messenger.
There must be exceptions, of course. But in all the days of my life, I never encountered a single person who found Wordsworth exciting. Or fiery. However, I have run into many people who find the Elegy rich and memorable.
Getting back to the particular poem, let us consider – these verses in The Ode are about death. Indeed, not merely death, but the death of a family pet – a subject fraught with peril for any poet.
The tale is simple – a pampered kitty sees the goldfish in the pond and fishes for them – a fatal move:
(Malignant Fate sat by and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Yet the poetry is charming and altogether wonderful. A triumph.
Think of what a maudlin mess another poet – the aforementioned Wordsworth, for instance, or Felicia Dorothea Hemens – would have made of this material!
It is not a long poem, by any standards – the lines sprightly, not weighty – springing up to meet the reader. Rather than quoting from the poem, I recommend it to you.