Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

by Thomas Gray
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What was the cat doing just before she died in "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"?

Just before she dies in "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," the cat lazily lies near a pool of goldfish, spots her prey, stretches down to catch one, falls in, and then bobs up eight times to call for help. Confident and greedy, Selima the feline reaches out twice before slipping into the water. Despite having nine lives, she fails to attract anyone to rescue her.

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The poem opens with a pampered female cat named Selima, who lounges next to a beautifully painted vase. Happily reclining, she waves her tail and purrs with delight. Gazing down into a nearby pool of water, she spies two goldfish. Eagerly and unsuccessfully, she reaches for the fish. Then she...

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The poem opens with a pampered female cat named Selima, who lounges next to a beautifully painted vase. Happily reclining, she waves her tail and purrs with delight. Gazing down into a nearby pool of water, she spies two goldfish. Eagerly and unsuccessfully, she reaches for the fish. Then she tries a second time:

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent.

Completely unaware of the depth of water between herself and her target, Selima

tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
Some speedy aid to send.

These final actions before her death—overconfidently overstretching and unsuccessfully crying for help eight times—satirically reinforce feline stereotypes.

First, Gray’s description of her as a “presumptuous maid” conjures up the image of a smug and prissy cat, which Selima seems to be. Greedy and impetuous, she stretches and contorts herself as a single-minded and determined (“intent”) predator. She ignores or is completely oblivious to any possible risks. The fact that she “tumbles headlong in” does belie the adage that a cat always lands on its feet. In reality, cats actually do have an innate ability called a “righting reflex,” which allows them to determine up from down while falling and thus right themselves in order to land on all four feet.

Second, Selima expends all of her nine lives. As a result of the “righting reflex,” cats often escape injury from falls and miraculously survive. In Selima’s case, she uses up her nine lives: one before she falls into the water, then eight—one for each time her head “emerges” from the water briefly in order to mew for help.

Finally, the fact that no one—no god or mortal—comes to her rescue emphasizes her aloofness, another feline stereotype. Sadly, Selima “has no friend!”

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