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Stevie Smith's Suburban Cats

 

Cats feature in many of Stevie Smith's poems; they were of course, part of her 'meelyoo' in Palmer’s Green. On this page I look at three of her poems on suburban cats: ‘Tidzal’ ,‘The Singing Cat’ and ‘My Cat Major’

 

In 1959 Smith wrote the text for a book of colour photographs of cats. Her introduction to 'Cats in Colour' is wildly inappropriate to the posed pictures of 'sweet little catsie- watsies' as she calls them, but it gives a useful insight into her attitude to cats. She writes of:

 

The game that human beings have been playing with the animal world since the first dog owned a human master and the first cat settled down on a human hearth'  and of how we have 'thrown our own human love over them and with it our own egocentricity and ambition.'

 We may, Smith tells us, feed them and give them warmth, or

'torture them as heretics, as was done with witches' poor cats in the middle ages, worship them for gods, as Old Egypt worshipped them, ... but still they are not ours, to possess and know, they belong to another world and from that world and its strange obediences no human being can steal them away. It is a thought that cheers one up.'

Smith explains why she is cheered in a discussion of her poem 'Nodding'. In the poem it is a wintry evening and her cat Tidzal is sitting on the old rag mat in front of a fire as its owner is nodding, half asleep and half listening to a ticking clock, an owl hunting in the park and twigs tapping on the window pane.

'Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tidzal gets up to move
Why should such and animal
Provoke our love.'

In the introduction Smith  answers this question with:

It was the indifference of course, the beastly, truly beastly - that is as appertaining to beasts - indifference of poor dear Tidzal I so relished.'

In the poem 'The Listener' Smith describes a therapeutic thought encounter with a different animal.

Listening one day on the radio
To 'An encounter with mosquitoes in New Guinea' by
Miss Cheeseman'
And experience at once a relief of nervous tension.

For I thought, Their battles are as ours, as ours,
They are no different from our own.
 

Thinking outside our human existence does put our own concerns into a larger context but I think this explanation is only part of the answer to the question: 'Why should such an animal provoke our love?' The thought occurs to me that perhaps Smith is also addressing this question in 'The Singing Cat'. This is a popular poem, but I find the archaic language: singeth, bringeth, clingeth, makes the poem seem rather sentimental, an imitation of something a romantic poet might have penned on an off day, an attempt at an ode to a singing cat instead of to a skylark. In Shelley's famous 'Ode to a Skylark' a cascade of heavenly images culminates in a plea to the spirit of the skylark to share with him the secret of the bird's gladness, so that the poet can use it to make people listen to his poetry. In Smith's poem the verses contain no spirit soaring to heaven but down-to-earth images of a cat clinging to its owner, 'pricking and prodding' her knees. The cat is beautiful, but it is distressed rather than glad, and yet:

To each human countenance
A smile of grace he bringeth.'

The poem ends with:

'And all the people warm themselves

In the love his beauty bringeth.'

 

In Smith's poem the beautiful cat singing of its distress brings grace and warmth, not just to a poet who might be, according to Shelley, one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' but to everyone in the railway carriage. Smith democratises the theme of Shelley's poetic rhapsody and bring it down to earth in a mundane situation. Shelley sees the skylark as a 'blithe spirit' whereas Smith's cat is simply an unhappy cat. Stevie Smith does not present herself as an important poet imparting truth to her followers but as a fellow traveller on a train. Smith's poem also has, it seems to me, a certain hymn like quality in its rhythms and language. Shelley's and Smith's poems both appear to me to infer that appreciating the beauty of animals brings something important and moving to the observer which could b called gladness or grace. In her introduction to  Cats in Colour  Smith seems rather disapproving of romanticism and the thought crosses my mind that 'The Singing Cat' could be a parody of Shelley's romantic poem. Is Smith's poem a sentimental tribute to the power of animals to move us or a sharp dig at romanticism?

 

Or could it be both a tribute and a parody? Although many people, even poets, like to present themselves as holding reasonably consistent positions, Smith, I feel, doesn't bother to attempt this, she accepts the fact that her persona is not fixed and her thoughts are often contradictory, that the same object can provoke love and hate, admiration and disgust. This is most evident in her poems on God and Christianity, which I explore on the Stevie Smith and religion page. The confused and shifting nature of our thoughts and feeling is, of course, something that is familiar to everyone, however much some people may try to deny it and see it as irrational and absurd. It is absurd of course, but Smith relishes absurdity.

 

It is often impossible to know what Stevie Smith is up to. This is a situation which Smith explores in 'My Cat Major'

'Major is a fine cat

What is he at?

He hunts in the hydrangea

And in he tree

Major was ever a ranger

He ranges where no one can see.

...

 

O Major is a fine cat

He walks cleverly

And what is he at, my fine cat?

No one can see.

Smith is a fine poet who walks cleverly and ranges where no one can see what she's at. Why does such a writer provoke our love? Listening to poems by Stevie Smith I often experience a relief of nervous tension as I enjoy her acceptance of the shifting, contradictory and absurd nature of human feelings and thoughts. This, I feel, gives her work a beguiling ambiguity but also an exasperating elusiveness which keeps me guessing as I look for her in her suburban shrubbery.

This is the first page of a discussion of the cats and other animals in Stevie Smith's poems. Not all of Smith’s cats are suburban, she  has also written of cats which inhabit mythological landscapes and of cats in entirely fanciful situations where a galloping cat may be touched by an angel. In her menagerie she also has lions and tigers, which live, or ought to live, in a jungle where her parrots fly around screeching awkward messages. Then there are  many dogs, lambs and frogs, newts and fish, a vole and even a dragon.  I aim to put up further pages on Smith’s animals in the next few months

 

Anne Bryan

March 2016

If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best  ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.

Permissions

If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site.

Stevie Smith's work  may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber

Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:

Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.

Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work

Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie Smith’s connections to her contemporary  writers, with a quick look at her possible influence on today's poets.

Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'

'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.

The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.

Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems:  'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.

Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered

Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.

Stevie and music -  musical adaptations of Stevie Smith's work

Stevie's Blue plaque:  an account of the unveiling of  a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.

Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes  were scattered

Stevie Smith links  to other sites which feature her work.

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