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: 202

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I think there are two major themes of this poem, and both are summarized nicely by the final group of 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.

In other words, then, we must be cautious and not overly bold, because we can never take back a false step or wrong move. Once we have taken such a bold step, we have to live (or die, as the case may be) with the consequences of our choice. Like Selima, the cat, we may find our "feet beguiled" by some "slippery verge" that we could not have foreseen, and then we might find ourselves friendless and without aid in such symbolic unfamiliar terrain. Further, we must remember that many temptations or things we come to desire are not actually supposed to be ours—or, alternately, we may find that they are not as precious and valuable as we first believed. Selima desired those goldfish, and she found that, though beautiful, they were not worth the risk. Not all that seems like "gold" truly is.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

Death is central in Gray’s major poems. “The Bard” laments the death of Welsh poets, “The Fatal Sisters” presents death in battle, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” regrets the end of carefree youth, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is both a dirge for Gray’s best friend, Richard West, and a memento mori (reminder of mortality) for the human race. “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” likewise treats the subject but in less a melancholy than a mocking way, which touches recurring themes in eighteenth century English literature.

First, Gray laughs at the human traits of vanity and greed, staple themes of Horatian satire of the 1700’s. That he associates a pampered cat with privileged coquettes is neither sexist nor misogynistic, for to show the baseness of these traits Gray needed an animal—and the animal that occasioned the poem was Selima, a dead female cat.

Gray also ridicules another human trait, sentimentality. In this case it is that of a man, Gray’s close friend since his school days, Horace Walpole. Gray wrote the poem after Walpole’s cat Selima drowned in a goldfish bowl. Gray’s intent was no doubt to make his friend laugh to cheer him out of his excessive grief for an animal, something only a good friend would attempt. The effect is that of a smile and a wink between cultured gentlemen, one of whom now sees that his maudlin emotion has marred the cool, urbane, and ironic demeanor prized by Augustan gentlemen.

A minor theme satirizes the folly of violating hierarchy or the order of things. Although only a cat, Selima is the “Fav’rite,” more privileged than either of the servants, Tom and Susan. Her grooming and leisure, especially contrasted with the lives of the servants, show clearly that order, degree, and common sense are out of joint.

A final theme is delicately sexual, based on the poem’s close association between cat and coquette. With her romantic name, Selima is demure and sleek, her face fair, her coat elegant, her ears beautiful, and her emerald eyes captivating. Personified, she is a nymph and a maid gazing at her reflection. After Milton, the word “gaz’d” began to carry a sexual connotation. Thus this vain cat’s slip, caused by unrestrained desire, becomes a fall and parodies the “slip” and “fall” of Milton’s Eve and Pope’s Belinda with their sexual connotations. Gray’s satiric target here is not women, but vain and foolish ladies, leisured flirts with “wand’ring eyes.” (Susan, a woman but not a lady, is not satirized.) Thus Gray’s little animal fable plays out the proverb that Pride goeth before a fall. Its mock moral to those leisured ladies—“From hence, ye Beauties. . . ./ Know”—is that from this story of a drowned cat, they should avoid temptation “with caution bold,” a fitting oxymoron to close a highly ironic “ode.”