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

Thomas Gray

The Poem

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

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...

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