Death is central in Gray’s major poems. “The Bard” laments the death of Welsh poets, “The Fatal Sisters” presents death in battle, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” regrets the end of carefree youth, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is both a dirge for Gray’s best friend, Richard West, and a memento mori (reminder of mortality) for the human race. “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” likewise treats the subject but in less a melancholy than a mocking way, which touches recurring themes in eighteenth century English literature.
First, Gray laughs at the human traits of vanity and greed, staple themes of Horatian satire of the 1700’s. That he associates a pampered cat with privileged coquettes is neither sexist nor misogynistic, for to show the baseness of these traits Gray needed an animal—and the animal that occasioned the poem was Selima, a dead female cat.
Gray also ridicules another human trait, sentimentality. In this case it is that of a man, Gray’s close friend since his school days, Horace Walpole. Gray wrote the poem after Walpole’s cat Selima drowned in a goldfish bowl. Gray’s intent was no doubt to make his friend laugh to cheer him out of his excessive grief for an animal, something only a good friend would attempt. The effect is that of a smile and a wink between cultured gentlemen, one of whom now sees that his maudlin emotion has marred the cool,...
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