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

by Thomas Gray
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 204

The speaker of the poem describes the twin fish who are so tempting to Selima, the cat, as

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Two angel forms [...],
The genii of the stream

They are so appealing, so beautifully lustrous with their rich purple and golden hues, that they almost seem divine or magical in nature. How could Selima, the "Presumptuous maid," resist the allure of something so lovely? She, of course, cannot, and she tumbles "headlong in."

Her sad and "watery" fate, of course, leads to the lesson or the purpose of the entire poem, wrapped up the final lines:

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

The speaker wishes to undeceive us, alerting us that boldness can lead us to misstep and err. We must be somewhat cautious, even when we want to be utterly bold, or our feet may be figuratively "beguiled" by some "slippery verge." We might plunge into a situation unknown with no one to rescue us. Further, we must recognize that not everything which is beautiful is ours for the taking or even worth the risk.

"A Favorite Has No Friend"

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Last Updated on March 15, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

Context: One of Thomas Gray's closest friends was Horace Walpole (1717-1797), an extremely wealthy dilettante who is remembered as England's most famous letter writer and as the builder of Strawberry Hill, an imitation Gothic castle filled with curios and objects of art. Gray's delightful and elegant piece of light verse concerns a favorite cat belonging to Walpole, which, in its eagerness to catch a gold fish in a bowl, fell in, and after coming to the surface eight times, lost its ninth life by drowning. Gray describes the cat, named Selima, reclining on the side of the bowl, waving her tail in anticipation, stretching "in vain to reach the prize. / What female heart can gold despise?/ What cat's averse to fish?" After the cat slipped into the bowl, "She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god," but no one heard her cry. The final stanza suggests a moral to the tale of Selima's demise:

No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirred:
No cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A fav'rite has no friend.
From hence, ye beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.

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