A Partisan Post–Cats and the Contemplative Life….

Today’s post is a partisan one, purely dedicated to cats as the companions and instigators of contemplation.  There are three famous poems at least having to do with cats (and I’m sure that there are many more poems which feature cats, but these are three particularly thought of by religious men, so since we have recently had a new Pope in the news, my thoughts turned to churchly cats doing, however, what cats do with their usual skill).  I wanted to share these poems because I myself am a cat fan and cannot help wondering if perhaps we are to see a cat in the Vatican as we have seen dogs and cats in the White House.  I mean no disrespect by this curiosity; rather, I had a strange dream last night of a tabby cat sitting high in an ornate window sill like those of the famous Basilica and fixedly watching a pigeon, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, the new Pope would be allowed a feline companion.  Or if he even wants one.  Who knows, he may be a dog or a canary man.  Of the three poems below, the first was written by an unknown Irish monk and found in St. Paul, Carinthia, Austria in the 9th century, and has been translated by several poets, including W. H. Auden, Eavan Boland, and Frank O’Connor (the rendition below is O’Connor’s).  The second poem was written by a religious fanatic who was periodically hospitalized but was a talented poet revered more after his death than during his lifetime, Christopher Smart, who lived from 1722-1771.  The third and last poem, from 1937, was written by Canadian Methodist clergyman, philosopher, and English professor E. J. Pratt, and perhaps views the cat with what many would regard as the most realism of the three poems, but which also clearly places the cat in the position of contemplative “muse.”  I will give these three poems in their entirety below, as each is past its first copyright expiration date and has appeared on the Internet elsewhere.  Thus, I am leaving the real work today to my readers and the respective cats, and hoping that even those who are not innate cat lovers as I am will enjoy the ingenuity of the poets concerned.

Poem #1–“Pangur Ban” (translated as “White Fuller,” which Frank O’Connor retitles “The Scholar and the Cat”):  “Each of us pursues his trade,/I and Pangur my comrade,/His whole fancy in the hunt/And mine for learning ardent./More than fame I love to be/Among my books and study,/Pangur does not grudge me it,/Content with his own merit./When a heavenly time! we are/In our small room together/Each of us has his own sport/And asks no greater comfort./While he sets his round sharp eye/On the wall of my study/I turn mine, though lost its edge,/On the great wall of knowledge./Now a mouse drops in his net/After some mighty onset/While into my bag I cram/Some difficult darksome problem./When a mouse comes to the kill/Pangur exults, a marvel!/I have when some secret’s won/My hour of exultation./Though we work for days and years/Neither the other hinders;/Each is competent and hence/Enjoys his skill in silence./Master of the death of mice,/He keeps in daily practice,/I too, making dark things clear,/Am of my trade a master.”

Poem #2–“For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry (excerpt, Jubilate Agno)”:  “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 this is 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 forepaws 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 forepaws 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 having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour./For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness./For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance./For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying./For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins./For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary./For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes./For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life./For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him./For he is of the tribe of Tiger./For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger./For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses./For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation./For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat./For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon./For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit./For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt./For every family had one cat at least in the bag./For the English Cats are the best in Europe./For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped./For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly./For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature./For he is tenacious of his point./For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery./For he knows that God is his Saviour./For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest./For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion./For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat./For I bless the name of the Lord that Jeoffry is better./For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat./For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music./For he is docile and can learn certain things./For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation./For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment./For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive./For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command./For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom./For he can catch the cork and toss it again./For he is hated by the hypocrite and the miser./For the former is afraid of detection./For the latter refuses the charge./For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business./For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly./For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services./For he killed the ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land./For his ears are so acute that they sting again./For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention./For by stroking of him I have found out electricity./For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire./For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast./For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements./For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer./For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped./For he can tread to all the measures upon the music./For he can swim for life./For he can creep.”

Poem #3–“The Prize Cat”:  “Pure blood domestic, guaranteed,/Soft-mannered, musical in purr,/The ribbon had declared the breed,/Gentility was in the fur./Such feline culture in the gads/No anger ever arched her back–/What distance since those velvet pads/Departed from the leopard’s track!/And when I mused how Time had thinned/The jungle strains within the cells,/How human hands had disciplined/Those prowling optic parallels;/I saw the generations pass/Along the reflex of a spring,/A bird had rustled in the grass,/The tab had caught it on the wing;/Behind the leap so furtive-wild/Was such ignition in the gleam,/I thought an Abyssinian child/Had cried out in the whitethroat’s scream.”

And there you have them, folks, three perspectives on the cat:  companionable, laudatory in the extreme, and finally taken wild with the wildness of the cat’s spring itself.  After having had a chance to read them again, I still reserve my own admiration for and right to admire the cat, but perhaps I should hesitate about the “election” of a cat as the ideal contemplative companion, tail twitching as it watches the pigeons in Rome–what do you think?


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

8 responses to “A Partisan Post–Cats and the Contemplative Life….

  1. I love it. Cats have always inspired something between awe and fear (no dog was ever associated with witchcraft). I think if you like cats, then you’re the kind of person who is prepared to love without expecting anything in return. Dog love is easy and natural. Cat love is an achievement.


  2. I agree with you 100% about “cat love” being an “achievement.” You feel as if you’ve passed a very important test of some kind if a cat condescends to love you, and even toleration from a friend’s cat is special. I especially like the way Christoper Smart in his poem changes the notion of a cat being evil to a cat being good by force of its “electrical skin” and “glaring eyes,” which he sees as combating the Devil rather than evidencing the Devil’s spawn. One note on dogs, however; in the Middle Ages, a large black dog was thought to be the Devil appearing in animal form, a notion which Arthur Conan Doyle picked up and used in his story “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” I guess animals don’t get a fair shake from a lot of Christianity, but I believe St. Francis was also the patron saint of animals, so not to be frivolous, but maybe with a Pope named Francis in the Vatican….


  3. I am allergic to cats! But a few have made themselves special to me. I am a dog person, but for some reason I think cats are more various. I can see how certain ones would make good muses for a writer.


    • Many people are allergic to cats, and as a cat lover I probably should add the rider that I am also partial to horses and dogs, as long as the horses are not too aristocratic to socialize with me and the dogs not too little and yappy. T. S. Eliot for one agreed with you that cats are more various, at least to judge by “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” from which the hit Broadway show “Cats” was taken. I loved seeing that show on television, and have always wanted to own the musical version with ALL the songs, stage show and movie both, but I can see how a constant diet of friends who went to see the show and insist on raving about it might drive a cat-hater or even a noncommittal person a little crazy. We all have our enthusiasms, I suppose (my nephew’s latest are two female fancy pet rats named Misty and Rodentia, which don’t especially ring my chimes, but I’m willing to meet them some time soon and try to overcome my fear of being bitten. I may draw the line at letting them roam through my hair, however, as we recently watched them do to my nephew on Skype). Animals are honest, you have to give them that, even with the wiles of nature at their command, because their needs and wants are simple, unlike those of humankind; cats, however, supply that hint of mystery to the animal kingdom, I think, because they are such individuals. (Sorry to go on so long; as I said, we all have our raves and peeves).


  4. My wife brought a cat and a dog to our relationship. The cat, a somewhat independent outdoor cat who appeared only for meals, had to be put down some months ago due to cancer.

    By chance, we found a mature cat at our vet amongst a pile of kittens a month or so later. While the kittens played for your attention, this cat just sat and watched. I mentioned her to the wife, who agreed she was gorgeous and we should see how she would like a home with two rubber ball kids bouncing around.

    It was a great decision. We still have her. She is super friendly, gives you attitude but is quick to come back for a pat, and is a character. We named her after the white (sabre tooth) tiger in the movie Ice Age 4, since it was the kids’ vogue movie at the time =)


    • There are the occasional “cat mistakes” in which cats and owners do not manage to mesh their needs adequately, but it sounds like in both cases you avoided this, though your two cats have been so very different. By and large, cats are practical beings despite their mystique, and work themselves into your routine, though my brother’s cat currently has disciplined the family to let him in and out practically upon “command.” My brother resists this dynamic, but has recently fallen victim to a certain amount of it, possibly because he would rather give in than continue to hear his cat Red’s dulcet tones just outside the window or just inside the front door requesting the concierge service.


      • Haha he managed to find a true Pharaonic feline. If the concierge service requests are difficult for pets, kids can be as bad if not worse =)

        I can understand his bowing to requests if they are made late at night, as a serenading cat while you’re trying to sleep is not good.


  5. Red’s not particular; any time of the day or night is a good time to demand to be let out or in. The family usually manages to sleep through his importunities at night, but once dawn dawns, and one’s eyelids are creeping open, he has his way again.


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