Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268
This poem by Thomas Gray is a cautionary tale about a cat who, unable to resist the lure of goldfish who were not a "lawful" prize for her to take, falls into the water and is drowned. The poem is divided into stanzas of six lines each, all using a regular meter and rhyme scheme (AABCCB). The only exception is the second to last stanza, which comprises two regular stanzas combined into one stanza of 12 lines.
At the beginning of the poem, the female cat is reclining on a "vase," or rather, the ornamental tub of the poem's title, gazing upon what she perceives to be a "lake" within the tub. Of course, it is not really a lake, but this is how it appears to the cat.
The cat is happy, her "fair" face and "velvet paws" being revealed to her in the reflective surface of the water. Seeing her own beauty, she purrs "applause" as if in celebration of herself. However, she then spots "two angel forms"—these are the goldfish moving under the surface.
The "golden gleam" of the fish catches the cat's attention. She immediately begins to stretch in an attempt to reach the "prize." As the speaker says, no cat is "averse to fish."
This is the cat's downfall. The edge of the vase is slippery and she falls in. Eight times, she emerges from the water, mewing for help, but no help comes. The cat drowns, and the speaker muses that this is what happens when we reach for a prize that is not "lawful"—not all that glitters is really gold.
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