Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
On the surface, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a surprising change of pace, coming as it does from one of the most serious and, as some regard him, gloomy poets of the twentieth century: T. S. Eliot, the author of such somber works as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and “The Hollow Men” (1925). In sharp contrast, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats seems refreshingly lighthearted and devil-may-care in the sheer energy of its play of both language and imagination. Yet, lurking beneath its surface is the potential of a darker intent, just as the potential of a lighter or at least ironic intent peaks continuously out of the corners and from behind the lines of Eliot’s more sober and serious literary endeavors.
The volume is composed of fourteen poems, none longer than two full pages, composed in a variety of rudimentary stanzaic patterns, ranging from quatrains to stanzas whose varying lengths, like those of prose paragraphs, are determined more by content than any preconceived structural principle. One outstanding prosodic feature is the nearly complete use of couplets, although several of the poems—“The Naming of Cats,” “The Song of the Jellicles,” and “Old Deuteronomy”—employ true quatrains, utilizing an abab rhyme scheme throughout, and “Of the Aweful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” uses three-line rhymes.
The poetry saves...
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Eliot's Cats have been much admired for their complexity of character. In relatively brief descriptions, the poet manages to capture the personality of the Cats and their human counterparts. The adult reader is aware of the human foibles being satirized, but as in fairy tales, evil is viewed from a rather detached perspective; and a light, whimsical tone is achieved through Eliot's puns, and his use of familiar rhymes and nonsense words. At the same time Eliot maintains a childlike point of view which makes the poems appealing to younger readers. Eliot's ability to capture the natural rhythms of speech also gives the poems an informality which adds to their appeal.
Like other Eliot poems these are filled with allusions, but here the allusions are to familiar rhythms rather than to literary works. Throughout his life Eliot wrote nonsense verse, and he was influenced not only by the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, but also by the songs of Gilbert and Sullivan. Old Possum's Book of Cats illustrates Eliot's exceptionally good ear for rhythms; as the "Class Odist" for his Harvard graduating class, he was given the task of composing a class ode which could be sung to the tune of Tom Moore's "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms." These poems echo popular vaudeville and British music hall songs, familiar children's counting rhymes, and popular music of the 1920s.
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Although Eliot obviously prefers Cats to Dogs (whom he characterizes as easygoing louts), generally he admires and satirizes his Cats without any discernible bias; social class and occupation seem irrelevant. The sole difficulties occur in his references to Siamese Cats as "Chinks" and Pekes as "Heathen Chinese," terms used to emphasize their status as outsiders.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Each of the Cats is so thorough a blend of human and feline characteristics that Angela Richards, who played Grizabella in the musical Cats, referred to the characters as half-cat and half-person. What are the feline and human characteristics described in each Cat?
2. Eliot believed in the importance of rituals. What rituals are described in his descriptions of the proper way to treat Cats?
3. Some of Eliot's Cats seem larger than life, almost like characters in legends and myths. What kind of new myths and legends might Eliot have been trying to create?
4. Eliot drew his rhythms from a variety of sources. Read these poems aloud, and try to determine what specific source or kind of source supplies the rhythmic patterns. Is there any relationship between the rhythmic source and the theme of the individual poem?
5. One of the major themes in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is the layers of identity; people do not know the Cats very well. How well do most people know their pets? How well do most people know other people?
6. A critic has suggested that "The Old Gumbie Cat" is a satire on amateur social activists who try to improve the lives of the poor through projects such as Jennyanydots's nutrition classes and Boy Scout troops. In what ways is that thesis credible? What are its flaws?
7. Eliot abandoned his original plan to write a volume of verse about Cats and Dogs because...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is in the same tradition of nonsense verse as the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. In what ways do Eliot's Cats resemble Lear's Pussycat or Carroll's Cheshire Cat? What differences exist?
2. Which of Eliot's Cats is most admirable or least admirable? Why?
3. When critics say Eliot's Cats are complex characters, they mean that most of them cannot be labeled as totally good or totally evil. In fact, Eliot may have been trying to illustrate the difficulty of distinguishing between good and evil individuals. What negative characteristics are found in the admirable Cats, and what positive characteristics in the criminals?
4. Eliot frequently points out that a Cat is not really what he or she appears to be. List some examples of the differences between appearance and reality. What does Eliot seem to be saying about people's ability to discern reality?
5. The musical play Cats is based on these poems in Old Possum's Books of Practical Cats. Compare Eliot's poems with the songs in the musical. What changes were made?
6. For years the musical appeal of Eliot's Cat poems had been recognized, but the difficulty lay in staging and in developing a plot line. How were these difficulties resolved in the musical play Cats?
7. Among Eliot's other poems, the best known are "The Hollow Men" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Are some of the themes...
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In the 1950s Decca records issued a recording of Eliot reading from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. These poems, along with unpublished cat and dog poems (most notably "Grizabella: The Glamour Cat") supplied by the poet's widow, became the musical Cats, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by Trevor Nunn, choreographed by Gillian Lynn, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. Cats opened in London in May 1981, and in New York in October 1982. The spectacular success of both productions led to touring companies that brought Cats to major U. S. cities.
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For Further Reference
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. "Macavity and Moriarty." The Baker Street Journal 28 (1978): 103-104. A discussion of the influence of the Sherlock Holmes stories on Eliot.
Campbell, Jeanne, and John Reesman. "Creatures of Charm: A New T. S. Eliot Poem." Kenyon Review 6, 3 (Summer 1984): 25-33. A discussion of Eliot's poem responding to an acquaintance who complained about his "tough" cats.
Clowder, Felix. "The Bestiary of T. S. Eliot." Prairie Schooner 34 (Spring 1960): 30-37. An argument that Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is serious and theological.
Douglass, Paul. "Eliot's Cats: Serious Play behind the Playful Seriousness." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 109- 124. A reply to Hodge in which Douglass insists that Eliot's purpose is not to judge his Cats but to fantasize things normally forbidden to children, to stress the value of daydreaming, and to express "Eliot's love for dog, cat, and mankind, and his desire to keep alive in himself the irreverent child."
Hedberg, Johannes. T. S. Eliot, Old Possum, and Cats." Moderna Sprak 78 (1984): 97-105. Brief history of the writing of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the transition to the musical Cats essentially supporting the interpretations of Douglass and Sewell.
Hodge, Marion C. "The Sane, the Mad, the Good, the Bad: T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Children's Literature 7 (1978): 129-...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.
Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.
Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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