Brain Pickings

Cats vs. Dogs: A Poem by T. S. Eliot, with Stunning Vintage Illustrations by Dame Eileen Mayo

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“You now have learned enough to see / That Cats are much like you and me / And other people whom we find / Possessed of various types of mind.”

While researching the endlessly entertaining 1982 gem A Cat-Hater’s Handbook, I came upon Best Cat Stories (public library) — a rare 1953 anthology, long out of print, edited by Michael Joseph and featuring 19 short stories about cats by some of the era’s most celebrated authors, with delightful black-and-white illustrations by English artist Dame Eileen Mayo.

Joseph writes in the introduction:

What outsiders do not understand is that we are not just infatuated worshippers at the shrine of the cat. We can scold our cats (not that it ever does anyone any good), laugh at our cats, play with them, find faults with them, and be exasperated by their unpredictable moods. The only thing we cannot do is to live without them.

So, in compiling a book for other cat-lovers, I have tried to present the cat in all moods; to show him as a cunning rascal with a nice sense of humour…; as a creature of infinite resources and courage… ; as the victim of his own perversity…; as the disciple of witchcraft; as an animal for the loss of whom a child will shed tears of inconsolable grief; the cat in fable, superstition, comedy, tragedy; the cat we all know and can never fully understand.

The final piece in the book is a lovely set of verses by beloved poet, playwright, and literary critic T. S. Eliot — a famous felinophile, whose 1939 children’s book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats — playfully contrasting cats and dogs:

From 'The Ad-Dressing of Cats' by T. S. Eliot

THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS

You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse —
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
But

How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in —
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James —
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste —
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

Complement with some canine-inspired literature and art from The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of last year’s best art books.

Best Cat Stories features more of Mayo’s charming illustrations, one for each of the stories:

From 'A Little White Cat' by Dorothy Baker

From 'A Fine Place for the Cat' by Margaret Bonham

From 'Smith' by Ann Chadwick

From 'When in Doubt -- Wash' by Paul Gallico

From 'The Blue Flag' by Kay Hill

From 'God and the Little Cat' by Selwyn Jepson

From 'The Fat of the Cat' by Gottfried Keller

From 'Broomsticks' by Walter de la Mare

From 'New Conquest of the Matterhorn' by T. S. Blakeney

From 'Johnnie Poothers' by Charles Odger

From 'The Fat Cat' by Q. Patrick

From 'Kitty Kitty Kitty' by John Pudney

From 'Mr. Carmody's Safari' by Kermit Rolland

From 'Feathers' by Carl Van Vechten

From 'Cat Up a Tree' by William Sansom

From 'Calvin, the Cat' by Charles Dudley Warner

From 'The Travellers from West and East' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

From 'The Story of Webster' by P. G. Wodehouse

Pair with Muriel Spark on how a cat can boost your creativity and some heart-warming Indian folk drawings of cats, then ready a tissue — nay, a box — and read about how Hemingway shot his cat.

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