The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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“Cats” is a sonnet, a poem of fourteen lines, in which the octave is divided into two quatrains and the sestet is made up of two tercets. The poem was first published in the journal Le Corsaire in 1847 and was ultimately included in Charles Baudelaire’s collection of 1857 known in English as The Flowers of Evil. The poem is both elegant and magical in its descriptions of cats. The first line (in the translation by Anthony Hecht) introduces “Feverish lovers, scholars in their lofts,” and the second line states that both lovers and scholars will eventually “love the cat.” In the first two lines, the poet has given the reader a glimpse of the hold cats have even on people from diverse walks of life. The third line of the first quatrain describes the cat as being both “gentle” and “powerful” and states that this creature is “king of the parlor mat.” In the last line of the quatrain, Baudelaire notes that the cat is “Lazy,” like the lovers and scholars, and “sensitive to draughts.” One can assume that cats, by their nature, exert a hold over those who let them into their homes.

The second quatrain—the second half of the sonnet’s octave—presents unsettling attributes of the “Gentle but powerful” creature. The first line speaks of the cat as being “linked to learning and to love.” The cat “Exhibits a taste for silences and gloom”; it is more complex than first imagined. It has a dark side, which has been heightened through long silences. The conclusion put forth in the closing lines of the second quatrain speaks of the cat becoming a “splendid messenger of doom/ If his fierce pride would condescend to serve.” There is an ominous cloud hanging over the poem now, which could lead to frightening prospects if the cat were so inclined. It is perhaps a small consolation that the cat will not be the “messenger of doom” because of its “fierce pride.”

The sestet of “Cats” moves away from the “gloom” of the octave and introduces mystery and magic. The cat is “Lost in his day-dream” as the first tercet begins and resembles “sphinxes in the desert.” It has become timeless and almost godlike. The first tercet ends with the image of this royal creature being “Fixed in a reverie that has no end.” The cat has transcended the conscious world and has become something that is more myth than reality. The poem closes with a tercet that revels even more in the magical qualities of the cat. The first line points to the cat’s loins being “lit with the fires of alchemy”; it has become more than the sum of its parts. From whatever angle the cat is observed, there is some new quality to be discovered. The poem closes with “And bits of gold, small as the finest sand,/ Fleck, here and there, the mystery of his eyes.” The cat ultimately remains a mystery, and the deepest mystery is in its eyes.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

Baudelaire’s collection The Flowers of Evil was not assembled in a random fashion. The collection is divided into sections, and the poems included in each section help to build a thematic pattern for that section. The American author Edgar Allan Poe had a major influence on Baudelaire. Structure, rhythm, and rhyme, according to both Poe and Baudelaire, should be employed by the poet to give each poem its own independent identity; each poem should create a unique atmosphere. Baudelaire constructed every poem as a unit, and the unit then fit into the larger thematic patterns to create the whole of The Flowers of Evil. The most successful poems in the collection have a strong rhetorical structure. Baudelaire’s greatest poems are relatively short. The shortness was by design, since Baudelaire (and Poe) believed that the power of one poem to stimulate its reader could not be sustained over an extended length.

“Cats” can be found in the first section of The Flowers of Evil. This section, “Spleen et Idéal” (“Bile and the Ideal”), is the largest of the collection; there are eighty-eight poems included, and “Cats” is the sixty-ninth. A number of sonnets are included in “Bile and the Ideal,” and “Cats” is certainly one of the best. The sonnet form was ideally suited to Baudelaire’s expressed need to create emotional impact in a brief number of lines. A sonnet is only fourteen lines long and traditionally has been employed to express emotional power through a lyrical mood. Each line of “Cats” is an Alexandrine, which means that the line has twelve syllables consisting of six iambics. There must also be a caesura (or interruption) after the third iambic.

In the original French, “Cats” draws much of its power from metrical stresses. Baudelaire also makes use of the compound doublet, which consists of the repetition of two, or possibly more, sounds in the same sequence. Baudelaire’s skillful handling of rhythm, marvelous manipulation of rhyme, and strong sense of metaphor all enhance the power of “Cats.” The evolution of the cat from a creature of the house to be loved in the first quatrain to a magnificent creature of mystery in the last tercet is beautifully unified. The sonnet form is a precise style of expression, and “Cats” is a concise poem. A subtly magical work is built upon a realistic base; the balance of the poem exemplifies Baudelaire’s belief that the emotional content of a poem could be mastered through its formal structure.

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