There be dragons!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cat


by J. R. R. Tolkien


The fat cat on the mat
may seem to dream
of nice mice that suffice
for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
or deep in den
in the East feasted on beasts
and tender men.
The giant lion with iron
claw in paw,
and huge ruthless tooth
in gory jaw;
the pard dark-starred,
fleet upon feet,
that oft soft from aloft
leaps upon his meat
where woods loom in gloom
--far now they be,
fierce and free,
and tamed is he;
but fat cat on the mat
kept as a pet
he does not forget.


I chose this as a happier alternative to the somber piece below. I found this gem while perusing a collection of Tolkien's work. He mimics here the Anglo-Saxon penchant for alliteration (the repeating of consonant sounds within a line) and at the same time makes fun of the old readers that always started with "the fat cat sat on the tan mat" (Ah! memories of kindergarten at Stanley Clark School and Mrs Peggy Somethingoranother). Furthermore he makes a very clever and insightful statement about the nature of language. The fat cat, which has vestigial remnants of its jungle-fierce predecessors, the "Tyger Tyger burning bright in the forests of the night", is like the language we use today which, though it seems ordinary, fat and lazy by the fire, has roots in war, struggle, adventure, excitement, thrilling events and terrifying. Each word we use, even the most mundane such as cat, carries with it the baggage of its historical roots. Moreover, on a philosophical level, we think that b/c we say the word "cat" we know what that furry little creature dreaming of cream is. But do we? doesn't the word instead of illuminating actually obfuscate and lull us into a dreamy fireside complacency that we have that thing mastered? A complacency in which we actually lose the glory and joy and wonderment that here is a created thing which really ought not to be at all. The stuff we see around us has no necessity at all. And our constant attitude toward the world ought to be that of the child seeing snowfall, or sunrise, or a cat for the first time. Poetry restores this joy and brings us back to that "Aha!" moment of pure awe without which our world becomes a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short machine of interexchanging fluids. As a later poem puts it "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow" or a cat by the fire.
In memory of our fine Penelope who died of leukemia back in the 1980s.

1 comment: