Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

by T. S. Eliot

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What is the verse form of "Macavity the Mystery Cat"?

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The fundamental elements of poetic form are line breaks, rhythm, metrical feet, and rhyme. T.S. Eliot's playful poem "Macavity The Mystery Cat" is part of his larger work Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. A modernist poet, Eliot preferred variations of nontraditional structure. In "Macavity," line breaks are not structured in traditional stanza form. Instead, the form is that of modern poetry paragraphs, or strophes. The poem's strophes all have different numbers of lines and different metrical lengths of each line.

Although the foundational meter is iambic octameter, Eliot doesn't hold himself to this form. Some lines have as few as three metrical feet, forming iambic trimeter (e.g., "his eyes / are sunk- / -en in"). Eliot uses other metrical devices that mark his poem as being of a uniquely modern form. For example, there occasionally appear extra weak syllables in opening feet as well as extra weak syllables at a line's end, illustrated by the following two examples.

"But I tell / you once / and once / a-gain" . . .

"His brow / is deep- / -ly lined / with thought, / his" . . .

Eliot's rhyme scheme is generally that of AABB couplets, although the playfulness of Macavity's misadventures breaks out in unexpected rhyme scheme variations. One variation is AA BB BCB, seen in Macavity/gravity, stare/there, air/again/there. Another is ABACD, seen in this poetic paragraph:

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for
his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his
head is highly domed . . .

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"Macavity, the Mystery Cat" by T.S. Eliot is a comic poem. As is typical of comic verse, the poem uses occasional anapestic substitutions, which give an effect of speed and energy. This means that in scanning the poem, readers must be careful to mark correctly the extra weak syllables.

The overall meter of the poem is iambic octameter, meaning that the base pattern consists of eight iambs per line. An iamb is a pattern of a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable. An anapest is a pattern of two weak syllables followed by a strong syllable and an "anapestic substitution" means that one finds anapests in places one would normally expect iambs, but with an average of under one or two a line at most, so that the meter is not predominately anapestic. An example of this is (note strong syllables are bolded):

He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:

The rhyme scheme is couplets, i.e. AA BB CC DD. These couplets are arranged into stanzas of four, six, or eight lines.

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The verse form for "Macavity, the Mystery Cat" is a conventional one for a lyric poem—it's mainly in iambic octameter. That means there are eight iambic feet to each line. For example:

Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,

The rhyme scheme of the poem is a standard lyrical one: AABB. The meter and the rhyme scheme combine to give the poem a sing-song quality, making it easy to read, especially out loud. Eliot also uses a number of literary devices such as personification. This is where something that isn't human is given human qualities:

He's outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)

Cats don't play cards, of course, but personification brings out Macavity's mysterious double nature.

Then we have repetition, used here, as is often the case, to emphasize a point. The point in question is Macavity's notorious elusiveness:

Macavity's not there!

A simile is a figure of speech in which two dissimilar things are compared using the words "like" or "as." Obvious examples would be "as strong as an ox," or "like a rolling stone." The following simile is especially good at capturing the essence of Macavity's sly, slithering nature:

He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake.

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