The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 418 words.)