T.S. Eliot might well be pleased that he's most commonly known today not quite as himself but as "Old Possum," the fellow who wrote those cat poems. That would likely appeal to the poetic master's sense of humor, as well as his considerable feline fancy.
One could say that Eliot liked cats, but that would hardly do. One could say he respected cats, but that would not cover it, either. As no other poet has, Eliot fathomed cats' unfathomable catness, celebrated their mystery and relished their utterly unpossessable self-possession. Comprehending the hold cats held on Eliot's poetic imagination is a difficult matter, as the poet wrote, "it isn't just one of your holiday games."
Eliot scholar and former Johns Hopkins University literature professor, Hugh Kenner, took a stab at it, saying, "Both he and Ezra Pound were obsessed with cats."
One might ask "Why?" That would seem a thing at least as inscrutable as the "singular Name" endlessly contemplated by any given cat on any given day, as described in "The Naming of Cats." This is the first poem in the collection of 14 cat poems published as "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," upon which Andrew Lloyd Webber based his endlessly running musical, "Cats."
"Practical Cats" appeared in 1939, by which time Eliot at 51 years old had established himself as one of the century's great poets. The man who had been nicknamed "Old Possum" years before by Ezra Pound had published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Waste Land," "The Hollow Men," "Ash Wednesday" and the "Ariel Poems" and in 1948 would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The cat poems received no great fanfare. More attention was paid to two other works that appeared the same year: a play, "The Family Reunion," and several lectures published as "The Idea of a Christian Society." Neither the New York Times nor magazines of the day even mentioned "Practical Cats." Eliot biographers tend to cite the cat poems in passing, and critical attention has been but faintly paid.
Thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, et al., however, if Eliot comes up in the popular conversation at all nowadays, it's apt to be in the company of such as the Rum Tum Tugger, Macavity and Asparagus, a.k.a. Gus, the Theatre Cat.
The story is that Eliot, a fan of the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, had been writing these thumpa-dump rhythm poems to amuse the children of his associates at the London publishing house, Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked. The book is dedicated to several children and to "the Man in White Spats," presumably a cat.
Cats made their most splendid appearance in Eliot's poetry in "Practical Cats," but it wasn't their only one. They had been showing up occasionally in his verse ever since "Poetry" magazine published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1915. In "Prufrock," a year before Carl Sandburg observed that "The fog comes on little cat feet," Eliot also saw fog as metaphorically feline:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house and fell asleep.
Later, in a poem called "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," a cat "flattens itself in the gutter,/Slips out its tongue/And devours a morsel of rancid butter." The poem "Five-Finger Exercises" includes a section called "Lines to a Persian Cat," a stanza which has scarcely anything directly to do with cats. The "tooth of the dog and the talon of the cat" are mentioned in "Choruses from 'The Rock'."
How cats claimed their corner of Eliot's expansive range of attention is not exactly clear. It's known that he lived with several cats at least as early as the 1920s, when he and his first wife, Vivien, lived at Chester Terrace in London. According to Peter Ackroyd's "T.S. Eliot: A Life," the poet was the "owner (or patron) of a succession of cats with names like Pettipaws, Wiscus and George Pushdragon." At Victoria Grove in London, Eliot lived with Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, both of whom appear in "Practical Cats."
The Ackroyd book includes a photograph of Eliot sitting in a stuffed chair at Chester Terrace in 1928 with George Pushdragon leaping off his lap, creating a furry blur just as the picture is snapped.
Pettipaws apparently had expensive tastes. Eliot once wrote in a letter that the kitty's "insistence on eating nothing but rabbit is going to bring us to penury."
In "T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life," Lyndall Gordon tells about an evening Eliot spent at his flat in London in June 1964 with Groucho Marx, with whom he had been corresponding for years. Groucho had crammed for a literary evening, Eliot seemed more intent on talking about the Marx Brothers' movies and ultimately the two "talked about what they actually had in common, an affection for good cigars and cats."
The feline essence
Naturally, Eliot had strong opinions about cats. He wrote an acquaintance once about his preference for unknown mixed-breeds over pedigree cats, which he considered "no good, stupid, nervous and of feeble character. The common cat, on the other hand, is either good or bad, but is apt to be a cat of strong character ..."
Certainly the kitties that prowl, leap, snooze, preen and otherwise meander through the pages of "Practical Cats" are a distinctive lot. While biographer Gordon suggests the critters represent sundry aspects of Eliot's personality, they also capture the feline essence:
The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He's always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he's at home, then he'd like to get about.
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 crime-Macavity's not there!
"The Waste Land" it ain't. But then, a one-woman stage version of that many-layered masterpiece opened and closed off-Broadway in two months late in 1996, when "Cats" was just beginning its 15th year en route to 18 years.
That's about the expected lifespan of a pampered house cat living in the adoration and care of a Nobel laureate, a man so discerning as to write: "Again I must remind you that/A Dog's a Dog - A CAT'S A CAT."