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
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
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
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
Listening one day on the radio
To 'An encounter with mosquitoes in New Guinea' by
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
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.
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:
Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life
Stevie Smith's Suburb -
Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
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
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
at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to
other sites which feature her work.
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