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Cat -- J R R Tolkien

Guest poem submitted by Suresh Ramasubramanian:
(Poem #1008) Cat
 The fat cat on the mat
   may seem to dream
 of nice mice that suffice
   for him, or cream;
 but he free, maybe,
   walks in thought
 unbowed, proud, where loud
   roared and fought
 his kin, lean and slim,
   or deep in den
 in the East feasted on beasts
   and tender men.
 The giant lion with iron
   claw in paw,
 and huge ruthless tooth
   in gory jaw;
 the pard dark-starred,
   fleet upon feet,
 that oft soft from aloft
   leaps upon his meat
 where woods loom in gloom --
   far now they be,
   fierce and free,
   and tamed is he;
 but fat cat on the mat
   kept as a pet
   he does not forget.
-- J R R Tolkien
A beautiful poem that's a bit more than it seems.  The Red Book has several
verses, some of which figure in the Lord of the Rings, or in the attached
stories / preludes / interludes and such.  Others are just scrawled in the
margins, for possible inclusion. JRR had scribbled "SG" in the margin when
he wrote the poem, suggesting that he meant to attribute it to Sam Gamgee.
The poem is also fairly traditional hobbit poetry (which deals a lot with
birds and beasts): rhythmic, with frequent alliteration and assonance,
making for an excellent nursery-rhyme sort of singalong song.

Still, it makes you think. Contrast a cute cat sleeping in front of a fire
with a wild, roaring and dangerous lion - and then have Tolkien solemnly
inform you in the last line that the cat hasn't forgotten her wild


[thomas adds]

Just a word on prosody: "Cat" may seem on first reading to be merely a
'hobbit nursery-rhyme', but the technical mastery it displays is nothing
short of staggering. The even-numbered lines rhyme with each other and also
internally; the odd-numbered ones have internal _triple_ rhymes. And all
this is done in lines of two and three feet respectively, leaving barely any
room for error; every single word (other than the placeholders -
prepositions conjunctions and auxiliaries) seems to be part of the rhyme
scheme. Incredible.

[Minstrels Links]

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien:
Poem #4, The Road Goes Ever On
Poem #46, Lament for Boromir
Poem #93, Eärendil was a mariner
Poem #142, He chanted a song of wizardry
Poem #220, Lament for Eorl the Young
Poem #257, Three Rings for the Elven Kings
Poem #318, Tall ships and tall kings
Poem #370, Troll sat alone on his seat of stone
Poem #440, Bregalad's Lament
Poem #643, The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon
Poem #736, The world was young, the mountains green

Cats, practical and otherwise:
Poem #165, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat  -- Edward Lear
Poem #167, Pangur Ban  -- Anon. (Irish, 8th century)
Poem #258, Macavity: The Mystery Cat -- T. S. Eliot
Poem #273, How a Cat Was Annoyed and a Poet Was Booted  -- Guy Wetmore
Poem #282, Fog  -- Carl Sandburg
Poem #401, To a Cat  -- Jorge Luis Borges
Poem #572, Mort aux Chats -- Peter Porter
Poem #574, Growltiger's Last Stand -- T. S. Eliot
Poem #575, To Mrs Reynolds' Cat -- John Keats
Poem #577, The Cat and the Moon -- William Butler Yeats
Poem #659, Poem -- William Carlos Williams
Poem #660, On a Night of Snow -- Elizabeth Coatsworth
Poem #661, Jubilate Agno -- Christopher Smart
Poem #662, Cat -- Jibanananda Das
Poem #663, A Child's Nightmare -- Robert Graves
Poem #674, Aunt Jennifer's Tigers -- Adrienne Rich
Poem #727, Milk for the Cat -- Harold Monro
Poem #955, Gus: The Theatre Cat -- T. S. Eliot

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Reed C Bowman said...

Always thrilled to read Tolkien I've never seen before. Thanks, Suresh!

This piece reminds me strongly of (and may have been an inspiration for)
an episode in Neil Gaiman's _Sandman_ series, called "A Dream of a
Thousand Cats", in which a sort of prophet or proselyte among cats is
wandering the world trying to convince other cats that once they were
giants (elephant-size, not lion-size), and that by a concerted effort of
dreaming, their one-time prey and playthings, humans, had reversed the
sizes of humans and cats, and reduced the cats to pets. The prophet cat
was trying to reverse this by getting a thousand cats to dream the same
dream, of their return to their former state of dominance, all at once.
But, as one of her listeners remarked, "I would like to see
ANYONE--prophet, king or GOD--persuade a thousand cats to do ANYTHING at
the same time. No, it will never happen."


Eleanor Durrant said...

Tolkien told us never to confuse applicability with allegory, and I daresay this poem is about a cat. But I
like to apply it to the domesticated human being, working in an office, watching TV, fixing the aircon, but
dreaming, perhaps, of fire, and the dark sky, the evening star, a spear in the hand, and grass under the


Megan Baker said...

Every time I visit this site, I always read this poem. I am a devout Tolkien fan, so I may be a abit biased, but this poem holds great power, and goes far beyond beasts. Sam Gamgee always appeared to be a respectable hobbit, never wanting to do anything truly exciting, or have any adventures. But really, he was like Bilbo, and he loved adventures, but he just needed a little push out the door. After his involvement with the ring, and cleaning the Shire, his adventuresome side was quite exhausted, but Sam, like the fat cat on the mat, he does not forget.


Wilson Bruce said...

Robert Frost, paraphrasing Horace, said that a poem is a thing "beginning in delight and ending in wisdom." 'Fat cat on the mat' is often the first time a child learning to read encounters rhyme, and from this simple beginning comes one of the most profound meditations on felis domesticus in English.

Anent the other writer's comment that it is equally applicable to the 'domesticated' human dreaming of 'heroic' times, I had never thought of that, but it is applicable.

Kathleen Bridgewater said...

Thanks for this site! My sixth graders are delighted with Tolkien's
"Cat". It is a rewarding core of a vocabulary study we did this
week. Go hunting for a pard, if you will! (Will it be hunting for you?)
No one has mentioned the alliteration that my students noticed as
important to creating a medieval tone. We are reading Beowulf: A New
Telling in which Robert Nye uses the techniques of Anglo-Saxon poetry
in a prose rendition. "Cat" has some of the same flavor,
intentionally I think. A loose Beowulf-Cat connection is the concept
of dreaming backward through generations to a powerful ancestor in
order to garner strength for oneself: The Anglo-Saxon king who
commissioned monks to record the four hundred year-old poem may have
sought political strength by connecting himself to Scyld Skefing.
Christian (domesticated) though he may be, a "divine right" to the
monarchy could be implied through the ages from the Odin-conferred
chieftain at whose shout enemies dropped down dead. The king may have
wanted his people to "not forget".

Mark A. Mandel said...

I think there's an error in line 20 of your #1008, Tolkien's "Cat":

the pard dark-starred, 17
fleet upon feet,
that oft soft from aloft
leaps upon his meat 20

That should be "leaps on his meat", not "upon", which has an extra syllable, and
which I think was mistakenly carried over from line 18. Check the source. I
don't have the book handy now, but I see that other Web versions have "on" in
line 20. (Search for "the pard dark-starred".)

[BTW, is "change not" supposed to be in the subject line? It's hardcoded in your
mailto link for this poem and apparently all the others.]

Mark A. Mandel

Buy Kamagra said...

oh boy!!! another poem dedicated to some animal, tell me how many poems like this one there's in the world? soo many I think, and this was wite by JRR Tolkien? geez!

Anonymous said...

JRRT was an infantry officer in WW I. The young men in his unit were factory workers, shopclerks, bank tellers, schoolteachers, farmhands--basically a cross-section of the young adult population of Birmingham and the environs. All of them dragged kicking and screaming out of their comfortable lives into an environment where they found themselves doing strange things--some wonderful things, some terrible things, but all very, very different.

And, as the fat tabby on the hearthrug is kin to the tiger and the panther, so these young Englishmen were descendants of Viking raiders, Celtic warriors, Norman crusaders--and it only took a spark to ignite that fire within them.

That is the story of "The Hobbit." That is the story of "Farmer Giles of Ham." And that is the story of "The Cat."

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