Brain Pickings

T.S. Eliot Reads “The Naming of Cats,” 1947

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“A cat must have three different names.”

Unlike other famous authors who, unbeknownst to many, also wrote for kids — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, and John Updike — the children’s verses T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) penned in the early 1930s in a series of letters to his godchildren went on to become a cultural classic. Published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the collection inspired the Broadway musical Cats in 1981 and was famously illustrated by the great Edward Gorey the following year.

In this recording from 1947, remastered in 1992 and found in T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot, the author himself reads the utterly delightful first poem of the collection, “The Naming of Cats,” which brings to mind its modern-day prose counterpart, Lost Cat.

THE NAMING OF CATS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey —
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter —
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

This particular cat is named Lucy. But she herself knows, though would never confess, that it's short for Lucifer.

T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot is an absolute treat in its entirety. Complement it with Edward Gorey’s fantastic illustrations of Eliot’s beloved verses and Eliot on idea-incubation.

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