Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.