Friday, July 10, 2015

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot

I have to admit I have never quite appreciated TS Eliot. I do not understand The Waste Land, I do not understand that Prufrock fellow, and I've always felt a good deal of sympathy for James McAuley's evaluation of Eliot's "mighty line":
To drift, and flutter, hesitate, opine,
Hint at a meaning, murmur that God knows,
And gently settle in a soup of prose. 
All the same, plenty of people I respect have respected Eliot, and I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction he wrote to Charles Williams's All Hallows' Eve. Plus, he wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and that is something I can not only appreciate, but heartily recommend.

This is a collection of fifteen or so comic poems for children, all about cats. If you've ever listened to any Andrew Lloyd Webber, or are otherwise familiar with the musical Cats, then you know some of the poetry already. There's Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the cat-thieves--and there's Growltiger's Last Stand, a chilling and epic account of a pirate-cat's demise--and there's the magical Mr Mistoffelees (who may be deceiving his owners as to where exactly he produced seven kittens from), and Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town.

They are all, of course, completely charming. As nonsensical as the verse is, it doesn't talk down to its audience--Eliot juggles, with supreme confidence, words like legerdemain and extemporize, without the least regard for age-appropriateness. And, though I suppose I really shouldn't be, I'm continually amazed by the wonderful ear for rhythm and internal rhyme and the jolly rattling clatter of well-used words--coming from one who made his name in free verse:
There's a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail's ready to depart,
Saying 'Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can't start.'
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster's daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying 'Skimble where is Skimble for unless he's very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can't go.'
Though of course, it should go without saying that no one has the right to write free verse unless and until he's learned to write excellent metred verse. For me, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is not just a terrific collection of funny nonsense verse for children, perfect for introducing the little dears to some high culture--it's also the main reason I'm inclined to treat TS Eliot seriously as a poet at all. The man could write. Look at him, spinning words like juggling-balls!
Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw--
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there's no on like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air--
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!

Macavity's a ginger cat, he's very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he's half asleep, he's always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square--
But when a crime's discovered, then Macavity's not there!

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard's.
And when the larder's looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke's been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair--
Ay, there's the wonder of the thing! Macavity's not there!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scap of paper in the hall or on the stair--
But it's useless of investigate--Macavity's not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
"It must have been Macavity!"--but he's a mile away.
You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place--MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is something that's becoming increasingly hard to find: real art, good art, aimed at children--or, indeed, at anyone who enjoys a bit of good poetry.

Find Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats at Amazon or The Book Depository.


Hanna said...

That's adorable (which I never thought I'd ever say about an Eliot poem XD). Much as I loathe "Prufrock" and pretty much every other thing I've ever read from Eliot, I think I could get on with this book. It reminds me of a letter that Eliot wrote to his godson a few years before Old Possum's was published. It included a poem quite like these:

Lady Bibliophile said...

Awww, I've read Macavity several times in a big yellow book of children's poetry we have. I'll have to tell Junior B. about this. She adores cats.


Suzannah said...

Hanna, I think you would find yourself saying many Eliot poems are adorable if you got a hold of Old Possum! That letter's gorgeous too. That precise poem isn't in the collection, but Jellicle Cats and Pollicle Dogs are indeed featured!

Schuyler, Macavity was the first of these poems I came across too! The rest of them are all treasures as well (and Eliot has a lot of fun with feline psychology--his cats are recognisably cats for all their anthropomorphism). If you and Junior B can't wait to get the book, look up Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" on Spotify. Some of the verses get left out, and some of the tunes aren't much to write home about (and Grizabella the Glamour Cat isn't even in the original book--they pinched bits of Eliot's Serious Poetry and welded them into a schmaltzy ballad for her), but you'll love it, I'm sure.

Bookaholic said...

So. You just won me over with those poems! English is not my mother language and I still had lots of fun reading those!
Truthfully, I've never even took notice of TS Eliot really. I mean, of course I've heard about him but I never took interest in reading his stuff.
This, however, got me curious!!

Suzannah said...

Bookaholic, do enjoy--TS Eliot's free verse is tough for even English-speakers to comprehend, but these cat poems are adorable :).

Anonymous said...

Eliot was a great enjoyer of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I had fun once writing a paper on, especially, all the allusions to Professor Moriarity and Colonel Sebastian Moran here in Macavity. They're mostly in "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House", if you're ever in the mood to make a game of it, though stanza 6 ties in some other stories (rather in the way an old movie or pre- (or post-)Jeremy Brett television version might...

Of more serious ones to try, I'd recommend "Journey of the Magi" and "A Song for Simeon" and the choruses from The Rock - and, for a big next step, Murder in the Cathedral (of which there is a lovely audio version out there with Paul Scofield, and a lovely film adaptation - including the voice of Eliot as the worst of the baddies!).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

I love TS Eliot, and the title here is just darling :-D

Your blog is fantastic.

Suzannah said...

Hello David! How nice to see you again. I can't imagine what fun it would be to write such a paper. What with that and going through Charles Williams's leftover papers, you seem to get all my dream jobs. :D

Thanks so much for the recommendations--those sound wonderful. I love the symbolism of Eliot playing the worst of the baddies. I'll have to look into them sometime!

Anonymous, I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog!

Samwise said...

Some of my favourite poems are in this book! I picked up a copy in a school fete a few years ago and I've read it many times since then. Great review!


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