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On The Death Of A Favourite Cat, Drowned In A Tub Of Gold Fishes

Thomas Gray

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2006-08-30
Added by: Cameron Lindsay
This poem exhibits Augustan playfulness and wit while at the same time containing a didactic message that warns the reader against being greedy. It also instructs the reader in the danger of trusting appearances. "Not all that tempts your wandering eyes/ And heedless hearts is lawful prize/ Nor all that glitters gold." The poem advocates the eighteenth century virtues of caution and circumspection, a sharp contrast with the Romatic emphasis on spontaneity and passion which was to follow.
Yet the poem, like much of Gray's work, does seem to anticipate the Romantic era in some particulars, not least the sensuality with which the description is rendered. "Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue/ Through richrst purple to the view/ Betrayed a golden gleam." Such lines are full of colour and imagery and there is nothing at all staid about them. Yet nature as it appears in this poem is still very domesticated and anthropomorphised.
The poem will also be of interest to many modern readers for the way in which it maintains a sustained metaphor likening women and animals. The second stanza offers a blazon to the beauty of the tabby Selima which borrows the language in which the Renaissance courtier would address his mistress. The language is full of elaborate praise for the cat's beauty, referring to, "Her coat that with the tortoise vies/ Her ears of jet and emerald eyes." This is the language which a sonneteer might address his lover. The effect is intended as comic but the reduction of women to animalistic appetites in the fourth stanza will doubt strike many contemporary readers as betraying misogynistic attitudes. "What female heart can gold despise?" The almost certainly unintended irony here is that it is Gray himself who is seduced by the glittering appearance of the scene, captivated by its sensual appeal. Ironically enough the sensuality and folly that he projects onto the contemporary woman is exemplified also by this glittering artifice of his own lyric poem.

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