T. S. Eliot

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

“Cats are much like you and me.”

I apologize if this book entry inspires singing. Then again, would that be so bad?

Although T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) wrote this collection of feline-inspired nonsensical rhymes for his godchildren, he made it purposefully lyrical and vibrantly theatrical. It was only a matter of time until Andrew Lloyd Webber turned it into Cats the Musical.

“Jellicle Cats come out to-night / Jellicle Cats come one come all…” Illustration by Edward Gorey.

Jellicle Cats are black and white
Jellicle Cats are rather small
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.

Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces
Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes
They like to practise their airs and graces
And wait for the Jellicle Moon to rise.

Edward Gorey's illustrations for T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in the Examined Life Library.
“Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity…” Illustration by Edward Gorey.

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 the crime—Macavity’s not there!

Like Doris Lessing’s adoration of the many cats in her life, anyone who loves cats will find one they recognize among this set.

Cats are, after all, just like you and me.

Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones—
In fact, he’s remarkably fat.
He doesn’t haunt pubs—he has eight or nine clubs
For he’s the St. James’s Street Cat!

He’s the cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impeccable back.

My particular favorite is “The Naming of Cats,” which suggests that cats—rightly—deserve three names to encompass their greatness. There’s the daily family name, the particular name that never belongs to more than one cat, and finally, there’s the name a cat knows himself and will never confess.1

When you notice a cat in profound meditation
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffible effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Who hasn’t stared into the depths of a cat and wondered what lies therein? Secrets only they know.

Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats is perched on the edge of poetry and nonsense. The duality of genius, and perhaps its stabilizing power for those who possess it, is its double helix of silliness and seriousness.

Like Richard Feynman’s jumping bean-like personality of self-discovery to Jorge Luis Borges’s life-long quest for imaginary beings and, most of all, poet Marianne Moore’s playful, incisive verse (Eliot was her mentor).

T. S. Eliot - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
“The Rum Tum Tugger is a curious cat.” Edward Gorey’s illustration for T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Anyone who can deliver the shenanigans of Mr. Macavity and simultaneously imagine mountains that bring no comfort gives us insight into human complexity and breadth.

I adore cats, ’tis true. But I adore even more human complexity. Read this in tandem with Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and imagine a mind that encompassed both.

T. S. Eliot