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

by Thomas Gray
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

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This poem by Thomas Gray is a cautionary story about the dangers of taking what is not rightfully ours. Although the speaker does not blame his beloved "favourite" cat for having been attracted by the goldfish she saw—after all, what cat is "averse to fish," and, by analogy, what human is averse to the lure of an apparent "prize"?—the final stanza lays out the moral of the story. The moral is that sometimes we can act on temptation without thinking, and sometimes a single "false step" can never be recovered from. Ultimately, not everything that draws our eyes is "lawful" for us to take and not everything that appears to be is "gold." Some things, the poet suggests, are not what they seem, and sometimes the appeal of forbidden beauty leads us to our downfall.

The cat in this poem is evidently very much beloved by the speaker. She is personified, always referred to as "she" rather than it and described variously as a "nymph" and a "maid." The image of the cat admiring herself in the surface of the water and subsequently purring in admiration is depicted as if the cat were a beautiful young woman lounging by a lake, admiring her own "emerald eyes" and displaying her clear "joy." Meanwhile, the fish which so draw her attention are described using language that suggests they are almost supernatural beings: they are "genii," "angels," and they are wearing "scaly armor." They do not interact with the cat directly, but they seem to cast a sort of spell on her, making her unable to resist them.

The supernatural elements in this poem are balanced out by the sense it creates that "Malignant Fate," at times, will deliberately play tricks on her mortal victims. The cat is "beguiled" into falling; the classical theme continues with allusions to "watery god[s]" and the Greek Nereids—sea nymphs who do not come to the cat's aid. Ultimately, the poet seems to warn that fate will toy with us just as the cat longed to toy with those fish. She made only one misstep, but it led to her downfall.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230

The title of Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” signals that the poem is to be read as a light satire. Because an ode is a serious lyric poem on a dignified subject in elevated language, and death is the subject of an elegy or a meditative poem of mourning, the very linking in the title of two high poetic types and a lowly animal signifies humorous intent.

Set in an elegant drawing room, the poem traces the demise of the pampered cat Selima. Reclining on the edge of the fishbowl, she stares admiringly at her reflection on the water’s surface. The “joy” of her waving tail and the “applause” of her purring indicate her vanity.

Selima’s self-admiration is interrupted when two goldfish glide through her reflection and call attention to themselves as tempting food. Stretching too far with her paw, Selima loses balance and tumbles headlong into the water. She rises eight times, each time meowing for help, which comes neither from mythical saviors such as dolphins and Nereids (sea nymphs) nor from the servants, Tom and Susan, who no doubt are jealous of the better treatment their master gives to the “favorite” cat. The closing of the poem is a satiric moral directed to ladies about the dire consequences that follow vanity and temptation.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819

Gray’s use of classical tradition is a primary device in the poem. First, it is a polished example of Horatian satire. Named for the Roman poet Horace, this type of satire is gentle, more sprightly than angry, and is aimed at general traits of human nature, in this case vanity and sentimentality. Second, the poem is indebted to the specific classical models of Ovid’s mock mourning for a parrot in Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English trans., 1597) and Catullus’s grieving for a sparrow in “Lugete Veneres.”

Following in this satiric tradition, the poem is a masterpiece of eighteenth century poetic form. It is a parody, a mock imitation of another style, in this case of the high styles of the ode, or poem of praise, and the solemn pastoral elegy, or funeral poem. Because cats generally do nothing praiseworthy and have no solemn funerals, let alone poems commemorating their lives and deaths, the poem’s style and subject are at humorous odds. Gray’s joke is to overdress a simple beast fable as an ode and an elegy.

The poem is divided into seven stanzas, on the cat’s vanity (1 and 2), the cat’s temptation and greed (3 and 4), the cat’s fall (5 and 6), and Gray’s didactic moralizing (7). Each stanza is a sestet (six lines) of rime couée, another hint of the poem’s humorous intention. This type of stanza incorporates two couplets of any single length and two shorter lines. One short line follows each couplet in a rhyme scheme of aabccb.

Versified mainly in iambic tetrameter, the poem is more faithful to the syllabic system at the time favored over the accentual system. The syllables of the succeeding lines in each stanza number 8-8-6-8-8-6 to correspond with the rhyme scheme. The syllabic system also accounts for the contractions called aphaeresis (“’Twas”) and syncope (“dy’d,” “gaz’d,” “Fav’rite”), which preserve the syllable count. The long assonance, or repeated long vowel sounds, especially those in every end-rhymed word, carries the mock funereal tone throughout the poem. The anastrophe (inversion of normal syntax), especially in stanzas 2 and 4, approximates the tense behavior of a cat in eager anticipation—the gaze, the twitching whiskers, the waving tail. Finally, the imagery of richness—“lofty vase,” “China’s gayest art,” “velvet,” “jet,” “emerald,” “Tyrian hue,” “richest purple,” “golden gleam,” “glisters,” “gold”—conveys an elegant atmosphere of class, wealth, and taste.

A classicist, Gray uses Latin etymologies (word origins) for a scholarly humor. Selima is “pensive” (from the Latin stem “pend-,” meaning to hang or weigh) as she hangs over the bowl’s side. When she sees the goldfish, her “conscious tail” (from“con-,” meaning “with,” and “sci-,” meaning “know”) knows. Selima is “Presumptious” (“pre-,” meaning “before”; “sumpt-,” meaning “consume”): She consumes the fish mentally before catching them.

Within this exacting formal fence, Gray uses satiric irony with words, conventions, and tones incongruous with the subject. One type of irony is the mock heroic, inflating or exaggerating the insignificant. Gray’s voice in describing such a trivial event is an example of bathos, a ludicrous tone that grossly overstates emotion. His use of the flower design on the vase and the water in it are a burlesque (a mocking imitation) of two conventions of the pastoral elegy, the strewing of flowers and the passage of the dead by sea or river. Other burlesqued features of the elegy are the grief-stricken poet and epigrams such as “What female heart can gold despise?/ What cat’s averse to fish?” and “Nor all, that glisters, gold.”

Gray uses auxesis (magnifying something’s importance) in such words as “lake,” “tide,” and “flood” for describing the fish tub and “Genii” and “angel forms” for goldfish. Gray exaggerates as well with his mock sadness of a dolphin not coming to save Selima. To think of a dolphin in a fishbowl or a cat on a dolphin’s back in a fishbowl suggests the humorously grotesque. Gray’s second type of irony is travesty, or deflating the dignified. He reduces ladies to cats and brings the supernatural—“Malignant Fate,” “wat’ry god,” and “Nereid”—down into a subhuman situation over a fishbowl. All these ironies either inflate the trivial or deflate the significant to render them ridiculous.

Another of Gray’s devices is allusion. Besides the general mock allusions to the ode and elegy, the poem echoes specific works known to every cultivated reader of the time. Selima’s staring at her reflection in the fishbowl recalls at once the mythological Narcissus of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; Eng. trans., 1567), the biblical Eve of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), and the coquette of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), all vain characters who admire their reflections before their falls. Likewise, Selima’s eight frightened surfacings allude to the proverbial nine lives of a cat and thus prefigure her death.