Monday, April 2, 2012

On Mrs. Reynolds' Cat

This piece, "On John Keats, 'To Mrs Reynolds's Cat'," was first featured on April 2, 2012, as a Poetry Daily National Poetry Month "Poet's Pick."

Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
   How many mice and rats hast in thy days
   Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears - but prithee do not stick
   Thy latent talons in me, and up-raise
   Thy gentle mew, and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists -
   For all thy wheezy asthma, and for all
Thy tail's tip is nicked off, and though the fists
   Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
   In youth thou enteredst on glass-bottled wall.

When we think of John Keats, we naturally think of Odes, Grecian Urns, Nightingales, Autumn, and “negative capability.”  We don’t think of cats.  Yet one of my favorite poems is Keats’s “To Mrs. Reynold’s Cat,” and you need not be a cat lover to cherish it. 

Most of us generally regard Keats with sorrow, and certainly his letters, along with many of his poems, leave us feeling lachrymose.  Yet we should not forget how funny Keats could be, and “To Mrs. Reynold’s Cat” is a comic gem; it was not published until 1830, almost a decade after his death, so perhaps his solemn reputation was already, as it were, writ in stone.  But most recent selections of Keats’s work do include the poem, so there’s hope that readers will come to appreciate another dimension of his character and work.

Who, you ask, was Mrs. Reynolds?  She was the mother of the poet’s good friend J.H. Reynolds, an ode writer himself.  The title grabs your attention, but a strong opening line is ominous of good, as Keats might have put it, in a poem.  How not to love this opening gambit for a sonnet:

Cat!  who hast past thy grand climacteric…

Alas!  We no longer celebrate the “grand climacteric,” i.e., the reaching of one’s 63rd year (though it turns up, sort of, in Robert Lowell's "To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage"), and it’s not a year Keats could commemorate in his own life, but poems, like cats, have many lives.  The thing is, this is not simply a funny poem, or a good cat poem, though it’s both of those things.  It is arguably a tiny harbinger of modernism, too.  One also appreciates a strong last line or two in a poem, and this one ends:

Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
In youth thou enter’dst on glass-bottled wall.

William Carlos Williams’s poems are chock full of walls and bits of glass, and I can’t help but think of “Between Walls”:

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

No cats there.  But modern poetry is characterized just as poetry was in Keats’s time by catfights and talon-sinking scuffles.  I can’t help but imagine that Keats’s fondness for Mrs. Reynolds’s cat contains some reflection upon his own frays with artists and writers.  After all, when Reynolds and another friend, Benjamin Robert Haydon, quarreled, Keats instinctively wanted to smooth things over, to stroke their fur you might say, writing to Benjamin Bailey:

It is unfortunate--Men should bear with each other: there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye lashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of men have but a portion of good in them--a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames, which creates the ferment of existence by which a Man is propelled to act, and strive, and buffet with Circumstance.

“To Mrs. Reynolds’s Cat” is a fine, warm, and humane poem that soothes, and forgives us our scrapes, and imagines us growing old and reconciled together.  It is lovely.

Pictured: A local cat, enjoying the lawn at Keats House, London


Henry Gould said...

How did my splendid cat Chester get over onto Keats' lawn? Only Chester knows.

Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

Lovely indeed. Thank you for sharing.