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.