Cats have been part of human existence for nearly ten thousand years. Today they are as venerated as when the Egyptians proclaimed them to be gods. We personify them in fairy tales, poems, children’s books, and novels. How has this exaltation come about?
Lets start with the eighteenth century poets.
James Thomson’s Lisy’s Parting with her Cat (1716) shows the changing bond between man and cat, or in this case, woman and cat. “that oft has lick’d my hand / With velvet tongue ne’er stain’d by mouse’s blood,” we see the transition of cats from mousers to pampered companions.
By 1748 Thomas Gray is comparing cats to women in an effort to teach lessons of morality. The author doesn’t hold out much hope for success when he concludes “What female heart can gold despise? / What cat’s averse to fish?”
Percival Stockdale elevates cats to be the superior of man when he writes An Elegy on The Death of Dr. Johnson’s Favourite Cat. The Dr. Johnson being Samuel Johnson, and the cat, Hodge. He applauds Hodge’s contentment to live in gratitude without need of deceit or material things, only “by his manner when caressed / Warmly his gratitude expressed;”
The general conduct if we trace
Of our articulating race,
Hodge’s, example we shall find
A keen reproof of human kind.
And in summation he proclaims:
Let virtue in thy bosom lodge;
Or wish thou hadst been born a Hodge.
Other 18th century poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats) used the cat to express the human condition, to bemoan our mortality, or envy the “intenseness of desire” expressed in a kitten’s play.
It is with Joanna Baillie’s The Kitten in 1808 that we see cats portrayed in the light of their individuality. Our fascination with them continues even today. It is in their appeal to the highest and lowest among us that man is beguiled by the once lowly mouser.
But not alone by cottage fire
Do rustics rude thy feats admire;
The learned sage, whose thoughts explore 65
The widest range of human lore,
Or, with unfetter’d fancy, fly
Thro’ airy heights of poesy,
Pausing, smiles with alter’d air,
To see thee climb his elbow-chair, 70
Or, struggling on the mat below,
Hold warfare with his slipper’d toe.
The widow’d dame, or lonely maid,
Who in the still but cheerless shade
Of home unsocial, spends her age, 75
And rarely turns a letter’d page,
Upon her hearth for thee lets fall
The rounded cork, or paper ball,
Nor chides thee on thy wicked watch
The ends of ravell’d skein to catch, 80
But lets thee have thy wayward will,
Perplexing oft her sober skill.
Even he, whose mind of gloomy bent,
In lonely tower or prison pent,
Reviews the coil of former days, 85
And loathes the world and all its ways;
What time the lamp’s unsteady gleam
Doth rouse him from his moody dream,
Feels, as thou gambol’st round his seat,
His heart with pride less fiercely beat, 90
And smiles, a link in thee to find
That joins him still to living kind.
There is no doubt that mankind has a love of cats that defies logic. Facebook and websites across the great Ethernet are witness to our adulation. Let us not worry the why or how but spend an afternoon reading poems about our favorite subject and admit that it is one of those great mysteries of the universe.
If a good mystery featuring cats is more your bailiwick, you might want to read the books in the Familiar Legacy mystery series. Familiar Trouble and Trouble in Dixie are the first two books in this romantic mystery series and Trouble, the black cat detective, is a cat to be reckoned with. If you are a cat fancier, I’m sure you’ll love these books. And don’t worry about running out of reading material in this series. Claire Matturro’s Trouble in Tallahassee will be available in September followed by Susan Tanner’s Trouble in Summer Valley in October.
Rebecca Barrett writes historical fiction, short stories of the South, and children’s stories. She is a cat lover, first and foremost, although dogs hold a special place in her heart. Cats have distinct personalities and abilities and anyone who is possessed by a cat is fortunate indeed, even if it is only in their imagination. Trouble arrived and decided to stay. He persisted until his story had to be told. Trouble in Dixie is one of his many escapades. Barrett has also written Road’s End, a historical novel set between WWI and WWII.