T.S. Eliot

Macavity: The Mystery Cat by T. S. Eliot

‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ is about a fiendish feline character from T. S. Eliot’s light verse collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Macavity, the mastermind of criminal plots, knows how to cover his tracks.

In ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat,’ Eliot describes a mischievous ginger cat that is modeled after Professor James Moriarty, the antagonist of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories. Similarly, Macavity is the antagonist of Eliot’s book and the only villain of the Cats musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The speaker, Old Possum, knows a great deal about this villainous cat. He describes it as the “Hidden Paw” and the “Napoleon of Crime” in the poem. It is because whenever a crime is committed somewhere the cat has some role in it, yet none can prove his involvement as “Macavity’s not there!

Macavity: The Mystery Cat by T. S. Eliot


Summary

‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ by T. S. Eliot describes the evil untraceable deeds of a ginger cat named Macavity, an embodiment of the fictional character Professor Moriarty.

The poem introduces the feline character, Macavity, as the “Hidden Paw” as he is one such criminal who can defy the law quite easily. Not even Scotland Yard or Flying Squad could catch him. Whenever they reach the crime scene, the perpetrator, Macavity, is not there. Besides, he possesses some mysterious qualities, such as levitation. He is a ginger car, tall and thin. His eyes are sunken inwards, his brow is deeply lined, and his head is domed. His coat is dusty and his whiskers are uncombed. He moves like a snake and sways his head side to side. Thus, nobody can guess his true motive from his looks. He is the suspect in a number of crimes. Stifling Pekes, theft, cheating, and espionage are a few of the long list of Macavit’s criminal deeds.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-10

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—

For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.

(…)

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!

T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ is about a mysterious, villainous cat named Macavity. According to the poem’s speaker, he is also known as the “Hidden Paw.” It means that Macavity has its paw in every crime committed in the city. Yet, none can make out his role in the act. He is the mastermind and can defy the “Law” quite easily. Not even the famous Scotland Yard (popularized by Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories of Sherlock Holmes) or the Flying Squad can get a hand on Macavity’s crimes. When they reach the scene, they always find Macavity is not there.

The following stanza opens with an awe-struck note that is repeated in other instances as well. According to the narrator, Macavity has not only broken human law but also defied the law of gravity. He has the mysterious power of elevating his body from above the ground that even baffles a fakir. Likewise, the way he flees the crime scene baffles the law enforcement officers. They cannot trace him either in the basement or in the air. Thus, the speaker reminds the audience once again that Macavity is never present at the crime scene. He operates in cover.

Lines 11-20

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.

(…)

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!

The third stanza elaborates on the physical features of Macavity that help readers to imagine what this cat really looks like. Firstly, he is a ginger cat, having yellowish, orangish fur. He is oddly tall and thin. His brow is deeply lined as if he is always thinking and his head is dome-shaped. None cares for the cat. That is why he has a dusty coat and uncombed whiskers. He sways his head side to side and while walking it seems as if he is a snake in feline shape. Even if it seems he is fast asleep, he always stays awake, carefully noticing his surroundings.

His physical appearance makes the narrator describe Macavity as a “fiend in feline shape.” There is an alliteration of the “f” sound in “fiend” and “feline.” The term “fiend” means a devilish or wicked person. Furthermore, the narrator describes the cat as a “monster of depravity.” It means he has no moral standards and is ethically debased. One can find Macavity everywhere, be it in a by-street or in the square. After a crime is discovered, as usual, Macavity is never there.

Lines 21-26

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)

(…)

Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

The fifth stanza begins with a terse remark. Macavity is, by no means, a respectable person. People are aware of his deeds and how he cheats while playing cards, even though he maintains an air of respectability. His criminal activities go unrecorded in Scotland Yard’s files. Besides, he is involved in acts of theft, murder, and vandalism. Whenever the larder is looted and a jewel case goes missing, Macavity has some form of involvement. Be it a trifling theft of milk or a serious murder of a Pekingese dog, Macavity is behind all such crimes. People keep wondering and his connivance remains hidden.

Lines 27-34

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,

(…)

Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity is not limited to petty crimes. His reach stretches beyond domestic affairs. When the Foreign Office finds a classified treaty gone astray or the Admiralty loses some secret plans and drawings, Macavity is involved in one way or another. He leaves the scarp of information in the hall or the stair after learning the secret. The speaker says the investigation of espionage proves unproductive as none can prove his involvement, either directly or indirectly.

The Secret Service discloses their speculation after the loss comes to notice. They say that Macavity must have been behind all this, even though he is miles away from the scene. The law enforcement agencies already know the leak is Macavity’s doing. They do not have any hard proof yet. Macavity can be found in his place resting and licking his thumbs or solving complicated division sums.

Lines 35-42

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,

(…)

Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

In the last stanza of ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat,’ the speaker says that there is no other cat, like Macavity. He is full of deceitfulness and pleasantness. Nobody can read his true intentions or can trace any evil motives in his behavior. He always has proof in his defense. No matter when the crime took place, he can prove his innocence easily. There are some other cats whose criminal activities are widely known. Mungojerrie and Girddlebone are some of them. They are the agents for Macavity, who operates a wide, untraceable crime network. He operates the criminal operations from his hide. That is why the narrator describes him finally as the “Napoleon of Crime.” Arthur Conan Doyle describes Moriarty by the same phrase in his best-known short story, “The Final Problem.”

Structure

‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ consists of seven stanzas with the line count varying from four to eight. The poem begins with a quatrain followed by two six-line stanzas. Then, there is another quatrain followed by a six-line stanza. The poem ends with two eight-line stanzas. Eliot uses the AABB rhyme scheme of the rhyming couplets. For instance, the first two lines end with a similar rhyme: “Paw” and “Law.” The following lines similarly end with the same rhyme: “deapair” and “there.” Eliot also uses a number of half-rhymes, such as “astray” and “way”; “say” and “away.” The overall poem is written from the third-person point of view, from the perspective of Old Possum, the narrator of Eliot’s light verse collection.

Literary Devices

Eliot uses a number of literary devices in ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ that include:

  • Refrain: In this poem, Eliot uses the lines “Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity” and “Macavity’s not there” as refrains. The first refrain is used at the beginning of stanzas two, four, and seven, and the second refrain occurs in the last line of stanzas one, two, four, and five.
  • Repetition: There is a repetition of the cat’s name “Macavity” throughout the poem. This incorporates a sense of rhyming and also reflects the speaker’s awe at the character. 
  • Personification: The ginger cat is personified and invested with the tasks that a human being does. The other cats Mungojerrie and Griddlebone are his partners in crime.
  • Anaphora: This device occurs in the third stanza. The third and fourth lines of this stanza begin with the same word “His.” Similarly, it occurs in the fifth stanza.
  • Allusion: Eliot alludes to Professor James Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes detective stories through the character Macavity. Interestingly, the names of both the characters start and end with the same letters, and almost sound the same.


Themes

In ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat,’ Eliot includes the themes of deceit, crime, and mystery. What is most intriguing about this poem is how Eliot uses the theme of appearance versus reality. The ginger cat Macavity seems to be involved in numerous criminal acts. Yet, none can prove his direct involvement in any of those crimes. Law enforcers try to connect the dots and fail to reach a conclusion as Macavity knows how to cover his tracks. He always operates from cover and maintains a scholarly aura. He remains invested in his activities as if he has no care for the external world. In this way, he hides his actual motives behind a facade of suavity and inconspicuous profile.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ about?

T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ is about a mischievous cat, Macavity. This poem elaborates on his evil deeds. He operates from the cover and stays away from the crime scene. According to the narrator of the poem, Macavity is involved in various acts of crimes, such as theft, murder, vandalism, and espionage. He is like Professor Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes stories.

Who is Macavity cat?

Macavity is the name of a villainous cat in T. S. Eliot’s light book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). This cat is described as the mastermind of crimes. He has the mysterious power of levitation. It is better not to be fooled by his scholarly looks as he is behind all the crimes.

Why does the poet compare Macavity with a snake?

According to the poem, Macavity’s head moves from side to side while he moves. This makes the poet compare the cat with a snake. A snake also crawls on the ground in the same zigzag manner. With this comparison, Eliot tries to portray Macavity as a deceitful character.

Why is Macavity never punished?

Macavity is never punished as nobody can prove his direct involvement with any crimes. Whenever a crime is committed, he is never present at the scene. Besides, he always has an alibi to prove his innocence.

What is the moral of ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’?

The main message or moral of this poem is that a person with no morals remains unpunished in present society. Macavity, like Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, operates from shadow. Though every law enforcement agency knows about his involvement, they cannot prove his crime. Thus, his deceitfulness always wins over their honest speculations.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat,’ you can also read the following poems from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. You can also read other T. S. Eliot poems.

Also, explore some interesting cat poems like:

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap