"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 dyed
The azure flowers that blow,
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
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 purred applause.
Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched, 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 stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between:
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to ev'ry wat'ry god
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend!
From hence, ye beauties undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
Thomas Gray (1717-1771)
The "nymph" herself was Selima a tortoiseshell tabby cat owned by gothic novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1779) . The poor lady did indeed meet her untimely demise in a tub of goldfish at Walpole's house in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. I must have seen the very same Chinese bowl (which Walpole had engraved with the first stanza of the poem) when I visited the house a few years ago. Wish I could remember it!
Walpole's friend, the poet Thomas Gray, was called upon to commemorate the tragic event in an epitaph. He wrote a poem instead. "I am about to immortalize [her] for one week or fortnight," wrote Gray to Walpole. We still feel the same mixture of pity and amusement two and a half centuries on!
What gives me greatest pleasure about the poem is the tone of it. There's such a contrast between the style of poem (a classical elegy which traditionally would have dealt with far loftier themes) and its content. There are plenty of classical allusions and references to Greek and Roman mythology. (A nymph is a water-spirit, genii are the spirits of the place, nereid are sea-nymphs.) Notice how the water in a fish bowl becomes a whole ocean? The gentle mockery is very funny.
Selima is spoken of in human terms. Her undoing is caused by her vanity (notice how she is entirely wrapped up in admiring her reflection in the second stanza) and her lust for gold ("What female heart can gold despise?/ What cat's averse to fish?"). Her death turned by Gray into a tongue-in-cheek moral lesson in the last stanza.
When I read the poem it reminds me of my own beautiful tortoiseshell tabby who flirts so outrageously with my husband I can't believe she's not trying to deliberately make me jealous! We're rivals, for sure. ("A fav'rite has no friends!")
Oh ... love also the form of the poem - the sixline stanzas with their aabccb rhyme scheme, and shorter third line. Formality here gives me much pleasure.
*Selima's portrait by Stephen Elmer (d. 1796). Note that the vase shown in the painting is made of glass - Elmer wanted to show his skill in painting fish!