Thomas Gray -“Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes”

The poem was written at the request of Horace Walpole in memory of his cat Selima, who drowned in a Chinese cistern. The cat was a she, named Selima, and in the poem she is presented in rather feminine terms, as William Blake’s rather charming illustrations emphasize. The poem begins with Selima looking, Narcissus-like, at her reflection in the cistern and purring applause. but then she notices two angelic shapes of two golden fishes. She dips first her whisker, and then her paw. She can’t resist their allure because she is a cat, and thus attracted to fish, but also female, and thus attracted to gold. “Presumptuous maid” finally stretches to far and slips into the water, while “Maligant Fate” looks on sneeringly. She emerges eight times, miaowing for help (because every cat has nine lives), but nobody hears and nobody comes to rescue: “A Favourite has no friend”. The poem ends with a moral to women to be careful, because one false step cannot be undone and “not all that glisters [is[ gold.”

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3 thoughts on “Thomas Gray -“Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes”

  1. Wow, this is really intriguing. I’m a long time fan of Blake’s approach to illustrating his poetry, so thank you for introducing me to this. I wonder if it’s a particularly Romantic era thing to write a poem about a drowned pet which is actually about gold-diggers, and then illustrate it with eerie supernatural figures.

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    1. Gray is classified rather as a pre-Romantic; he died in 1771, when Blake had not started his engraving apprenticeship yet. I guess you can’t find another poem on exactly the same subject and with the same type of illustrations, although dead pet elegies were a thing in the 18th c., including the fact that in many of them the death of the pet was a pretext for a satiric or moralizing poem (viz. Tague, Ingrid H. “Dead Pets: Satire and Sentiment in British Elegies and Epitaphs for Animals.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2008, pp. 289–306. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30053552 ) What I failed to mention in the post is that Gray in his poem describes the fishes as mythical creatures, “the genii of the stream”. What I like about Blake’s illustrations is how he uses Gray’s idea, portraying the fishes as a kind of supernatural creatures, and then in the last plate the spell is broken, they are just fishes – but instead we get the spirit of the cat rising from the water.

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