This poem, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’, is based on an actual incident that occurred in the house of a friend of Gray’s. This friend had two pet cats, both of them female. The cats had been given the names Selima and Zara. Gray, in the course of a visit to his friend’s house, had seen these cats. Sometime later, the friend had written to Gray, informing him about the death of one of the cats, naming the cat which had died, and adding that the cat had accidentally been drowned in the tub of water in which the friend had been keeping some goldfish. It seemed to Gray that this incident could serve as the basis for his writing of an amusing poem from which readers could not only derive amusement but also draw a moral.
So he wrote the poem, calling it an ode though it is not strictly speaking an ode. The poem is written in a mock-heroic style, very much in the manner of Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, though this poem is much shorter than Pope’s poem. Although not an ode, the poem may be regarded as a parody of the form.
It was written in 1747, the year marking the end of the first period of Gray’s poetic career. It is a most diverting poem, offering a complete contrast to the Hymn to Adversity which is written in a serious and sombre mood, and also in complete contrast to most of Gray’s other poems which are serious, and almost gloomy. As this poem contains a story, we could also classify it as a narrative poem.
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes Analysis
Stanzas One and Two
’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purred applause.
A female cat, having the name of Selima, sat leaning against a tall vessel that had been painted richly and brightly by a Chinese Craftsman, with blue-coloured flowers blooming on it. Selima was in a thoughtful mood, and in that mood she sat, gazing at the water in the large vessel which had the shape of a vase. Selima looked at the water as if she were the most modest and the meekest of all the female cats.
Selima’s tail swayed from side to side, indicating that she was quite happy. This cat had a fair-complexioned, round face. She had a perfectly white beard (or whiskers). She had paws that were as soft and smooth as velvet is. She had thick and hard skin that seemed to compete with the hard and thick skin of a tortoise. Her ears were perfectly black, and her eyes were green in colour. She looked at the water in the vase and murmured her approval of its presence there.
Stanzas Three and Four
Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
Selima would have continued to stare at the water if she had not observed two angelic figures moving about effortlessly and without the least difficulty in the water. These figures seemed to be the spirits that controlled all the waters, and which were in charge of this water also. Actually, these figures were goldfish having thick skins which served as their defence against any possible attack just as a knight’s armour serves as his protective coat. These fish were of a deep red colour reminding an on-looker of the rich colours which were manufactured in ancient times on the island of Tyre.
The rich golden colour of the fish betrayed their real identity to Selima. The cat looked at them with wonder, but she was herself destined to meet a sad fate. The fish in the vase was the delicious food that Selima now wanted to eat. She stretched first a whisker and then a claw, with many fervent wishes, towards the water in order to catch the fish; but all her efforts proved futile. No woman in this world can hold gold in contempt or look at gold scornfully. In the same way, no cat in this world can remain indifferent to the presence of fish near her. (A cat years for fish in the same way as a woman yearns for gold).
Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
A Favourite has no friend!
Selima proved to be an over-confident female cat. With eyes looking at the fish fixedly and purposefully, she once again stretched a whisker and a claw towards the fish, not realizing that a huge quantity of water stood between her and her intended prey. Fate was at this time hostile to her, and Fate smiled with amusement to see what Selima was doing. (Fate smiled because Selima’s life was about to end and thus fulfil Fate’s spiteful intention). Selima was betrayed by the slippery brim on the vase, and, losing her grip upon the brim, she fell, head first, into the water. Eight times she rose to the surface from the bottom of the vase, uttering cries of distress and praying to every god of the waters to send her some help without any delay. But no marine animal, such as a dolphin, and no water-spirit such as a nereid came to her rescue. Neither the male cate, Tom, nor the female cat, Susan, heard her cries. Tom proved to be cruel by his indifference. The fact is that Selima was the favourite of her owners, and a favourite has no friend. (A favourite always excites jealousy, and not goodwill, in others).
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
You beautiful women, do not be deceived by appearances. You should learn from this incident a lesson, and the lesson is that one single false step taken by a maiden can do great harm to her because it cannot be retracted. You should therefore exercise care when venturing upon any bold enterprise. You should know that everything, which tempts you, is not a legitimate commodity for you to seek. Your eyes keep looking around you for desirable items, and your hearts do not care enough. You should know that everything, which has a bright and shining appearance, is not gold.
The poem, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’, by Thomas Gray, is a remarkable poem in several ways. Though described as an ode, the poem tells a story. Besides, an ode is generally a serious poem while this poem is written in a satirical vein. The poem, we are told by biographers and commentators, is based on an actual incident, and has therefore the stamp of authenticity on it. Gray has made excellent use of an actual incident not only to tell us an amusing story but also to convey a few moral lessons to us. Thus, the poem combines its narrative interest with its satirical character and with its didactic purpose. And the poem is rich in suggestions and in its implications.
Furthermore, Gray has here employed the kind of diction which eminently suits the theme of the poem. Words have been chosen with great care, and they have been put together most aptly and judiciously so that the style of writing here not only equals the demands of the theme but excels the theme in its appeal, thus imparting considerable charm to the theme and reinforcing the theme and the moral of the poem. We feel inclined to regard this poem as a masterpiece of satirical poetry, short though it is. The poem’s brevity is not a demerit of it because the brevity is due partly to Gray’s skill in compression and condensing his ideas. In fact, the dictum “brevity is the soul of wit” is literally and fully applicable to this poem.
Imagery used in the Poem
The poem contains a number of pictures that bear witness to Gray’s imaginative faculty. The lofty vase, with blue flowers in full bloom painted on its outer surface; the pensive Selima reclining by the vase’s side; two “angel forms” gliding in the water; and “their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue” are examples of vivid and realistic imagery. The physical appearance of the cat, with her fair round face and her snowy beard, with her paws, and with her hard skin which seems to be competing with that of a tortoise, has also been most effectively described so that we cannot only visualize the cat but also, in the stanzas which follow, her efforts to catch the gold fish, the futility of those efforts, and her ultimate end.