In an essay from Alarms and Discursions (1910), G.K. Chesterton lamented that, as far as he could discern, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Thankfully, kittens and cats have been far more reliable as poetic muses. Poems about cats experienced a surge in popularity between the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 and the fall of Napoleon in 1815. This is unsurprising, since it was during this period, known among some scholars as the long 18th century, that cats began their rise from working animals and pests into popular domestic pets and companions.
Aside from language and poetic diction that some modern readers may find stilted or forbidding, cat poems of the 18th century dealt with universal themes in completely familiar ways. There are plenty of kittens, elegies and memorials to lost cats, black cats, and poems written from a cat’s perspective. Some are serious, others comic, and still others where a cat serves as an idealized figure of religious devotion. Our survey spans the entire era — featuring poems published between 1716 and 1818 — and includes pieces by male and female poets, both famous and obscure. The 10 poems we’ve selected, in chronological order, are:
James Thomson authored his cat poem as a teenager. It concerns his sister Elizabeth’s departure for boarding school and offers disconsolate responses on both sides. Thomson’s sister praises a cat “that oft hast lick’d my hands / With velvet tongue ne’er stain’d by mouse’s blood,” while the grey cat can only “loathe the thoughts of life” without its owner. This short cat poem not only captures the bond between the two parties, but also illustrates the ongoing transition in the public imagination of cats from filthy prowlers to pampered companions.
Gray’s poem uses a mock-heroic style to set the cat Selima up as a tragic figure, undone by heedless ambition. The ode explicitly compares cats to women in an attempt to teach lessons in morality and modesty. The central stanza, with its famous lines, “What female heart can gold despise? / What cat’s averse to fish?” seems to offer little hope that either cats or ladies will take its cautions to heart. Even 18th-century cat poetry was not free from the scourge of mansplaining.
From the silly to the sublime, the “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry…” segment of Christopher Smart’s fragmentary Jubilate Agno is an ecstatic hymn of praise, celebrating the cat as as a moral and religious exemplar. Everything from the cat’s rat-catching skills, keen hearing, and self-grooming habits are held up as proof of his divine favor to the point that the poet avers that “every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.”
Smart’s entry in the cat poem genre heralds his cat both as “a servant of the living God” and as “an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.” While these 74 lines may seem amusing or comic, the cat’s “mixture of gravity and waggery” is, at every point, viewed as completely natural, and therefore, essential to its part in universal harmony.
Samuel Johnson, one of the era’s leading literary lights, also owned one of its most famous cats, a black cat named Hodge. Visitors to London’s Gough Square, where Johnson lived, will even find a statue of Hodge just outside. Stockdale’s cat bereavement poem highlights a continuing cultural friction over whether the cat is even a fit subject for poetry.
Stockdale’s verses compare humans to cats and finds humans severely lacking. If, the poet argues, authors will “prostitute their lays” to honor “venal Statesmen,” then surely cats, who are both “closer to nature’s glory” and without sin, deserve honor in death.
Anna Seward’s poem memorializes the “gentlest, fondest of the tabby race,” a cat, like Gray’s, named Selima. Seward’s cat poem, written entirely from the cat’s perspective, fondly revisits all of the favorite spots and pastimes of her youth, even as “feeble age each glazing eyeball dims” and the “ninth (life) creeps languid through my veins.”
Many cat poems dwell on the cat owner’s sense of loss at the death of a cat. Seward’s sweetly envisions that Selima’s greatest regret in crossing the Rainbow Bridge will be that “her more loved master” is not there to share the experience with her.
There may be no poem about cats — certainly no poem about big cats — in the 18th century more famous than Blake’s “The Tyger.” The short poem consists of a series of questions, each of which attempts to balance the delicate beauty of nature with its ferocious implacability.
A major recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry is that, while we can remember the pure exuberance of youth, we can never completely recapture it except through the experience of others. Leave it to Wordsworth, then, to use his infant daughter’s encounter with a kitten to inspire a pair of envious reactions.
The poet is jealous, both of the kitten’s “intenseness of desire” and that his daughter’s “transports” watching the spectacle unfold before him “are not mine.” As the poem concludes, it’s neither about the kitten or the baby, but the falling leaves which represent the speaker’s sense of his own mortality.
Thought to be Percy Shelley’s earliest extant poem, “A Cat in distress,” is, like Wordsworth’s poem, less about cats and more about human failings. Here, Shelley bemoans “All the modes of distress / Which torture the tenants of earth” and the troubles generated by unfulfilled desires. The poem’s central point is that, while cats may be vicious and self-centered, at least they are honest about their needs.
Baillie’s kitten poem is unique in this particular survey in approaching the cat on her own terms. She examines the cat’s growing reputation as a pet. In “The Kitten,” cats offer love and joy to people of all social strata. Baillie not only extols the cat’s universal appeal, but also anticipates our own modern preoccupations with animal neglect and abuse.
Tracing the course of a cat’s life from birth to death, “The Kitten” is also a studied response to and rebuttal of Wordsworth’s poem. The cat, Baillie’s poem argues, is not merely a vessel for our philosophical musings, but an individual, worthy of respect and reverence.
A fine poem to end with, and one in which Keats’s sensitivity and empathy are on full display. In 14 lines, Keats manages to encapsulate the full range of the long 18th century’s literary approaches to cats. Mrs. Reynolds’s cat has experienced all the vicissitudes of life, its triumphs and its tragedies; note the aside about how the cat’s “tail’s tip is nicked off.”
The poem also features comic touches that amuse without being callous. Reading it aloud, you can almost feel the physical interruption described when the speaker implores the cat seated on his lap, “pr’ythee do not stick / Thy latent talons in me!” In spite of the cat’s advanced age and declining condition, “still is that fur as soft” as it was in the cat’s kittenhood.
For all the years I spent huddled in libraries, contemplating, researching, and writing about 18th-century British literature, I had no idea until now just how much the era’s poets had to say about cats and kittens. What a delight it has been to discover the period’s feline muse was so strong.
Poems in the 18th century about cats continue to be relevant and relatable to modern readers. It is extremely encouraging, for instance, to see that from that time to this, people have never stopped wondering, as Joanna Baillie did, “Whence hast thou, then, thou witless puss, / The magic power to charm us thus?” Share your favorite cat poems in the comments below!
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a two-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Baby, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.