For “cats are very much like you and me” …
Based on works such as the poems “Prufrock” (1917) and “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and the drama “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935), American-born and naturalized British poet and future Nobel laureate T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot – also founder and editor of the literary journal Criterion – was already an established writer when, in 1939, he came up with this series of poems for children, which due to their timeless charm and humorous insight into the feline nature had long become literary classics for the young and old alike before Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber used them as a basis for their award-winning musical “Cats.”
My favorite rendition of these poems, which were originally a gift from “Old Possum” Eliot to his godchildren, is the 1983 recording featuring Sir John Gielgud and his recurrent stage partner Irene Worth, who alternatingly read the poems and bring to life the likes of Jennyanydots the old Gumbie Cat (who at night displays a show of unexpected zeal in training mice and cockroaches in the art of keeping a clean house), the old “bravo cat” Growltiger (who, already having lost one eye and one ear in battle, one balmy night has “no eye or ear for aught but [the lady] Griddlebone,” thus at last making himself vulnerable to his many enemies and “forced to walk the plank”), Rum Tum Tugger, the “curious cat,” who very much has a mind of his own and always seems to want exactly the opposite of what you have given him (“For he will do as he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it”), and Macavity, “the Napoleon of crime,” who controls even notorious scoundrels like Mungojerrie and who is fatefully remeniscient of Berthold Brecht’s Mac the Knife in rhyme, metre, name and character.
Sir John Gielgud and Irene Worth bring not only their entire impeccable theatrical training to the project but, more importantly, a great sense of humor and a true feeling for the nature of each feline protagonist – and for their canine adversaries; because, as nobody can seriously doubt any longer by the time when we have reached the last poem, “a cat is not a dog!”
So you truly hear that Chinese vase go “bing!” when Irene Worth tells the story of the eternal pranksters Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer; you see them turning the basement into a “field of war,” and you hear the cook’s desperation when she has to inform the family that there will be no meat for dinner because “the joint has gone from the oven – like that!” You can picture Old Deuteronomy sleeping or sitting in the sun, and see his slow, ponderous movements as you hear John Gielgud’s rendition of the oldest village inhabitant’s ever-unchanging comment: “Well, of all … things … Can it be … really! … No! … Yes! … Ho! hi! Oh, my eye!” Reading about “the Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles,” Irene Worth does not merely give you the dogs’ various kinds of bark; true to character she moreover endows them with their respective Pekinese, Yorkshire and Scottish accents. Similarly, hearing John Gielgud read the story of the great conjurer Mr. Mistoffelees (whose name is another one of the numerous literary allusions hidden in Eliot’s verses – and of course this particular cat is “black from his ears to the tip of his tail”), there can be no doubt about the degree of amazement in which he holds his audience (“Oh! Well I never! Was there ever a cat so clever as Magical Mr. Mistoffelees!”); and of course it also falls to none other than great Shakespearean actor Gielgud to tell us about Gus, the old “theatre cat,” and his thespian exploits, endowing the four-pawed stage veteran with a dignity that would do any of his human colleagues proud. Irene Worth does much the same for the St. James Street club-going, pompously condescending (and shall we say it? remarkably fat!) Bustopher Jones, whereas Gielgud’s voice finally assumes a hurried, but regular pace – much like a train rattling down its tracks – as he reads the story of Skimbleshanks, the “railway cat,” who keeps the train in order from luggage car to passenger compartments, always ready to assist personnel and travelers alike.
The first and last poems, “The Naming of Cats” and “The Ad-dressing of Cats” are read by Gielgud and Worth together, both in turn taking a verse at a time – and unflappably pronouncing tongue-twisting, “peculiar” cat names such as Munkustrap, Bombalurina and Jellylorum, and lines like the closing of the first poem, which refers to a cat’s meditation on his “ineffable effable effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular Name.” – You can, of course, always pop in a video or DVD and watch the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s poems – but for a closer interpretation of the originals, few versions are as enjoyable as this classic recording featuring two of Britain’s all-time greatest actors, at the end of which you truly “should need no interpreter to understand [the cats’] character.”
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, or George or Bill Bailey –
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter –
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum –
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover –
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”
The Ad-dressing of Cats
“You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse –
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
How would you ad-dress a Cat?
So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.
Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in –
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.
Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog – A CAT’S A CAT.
With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James –
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste –
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.”
“Gus is the Cat at the Theatre Door.
His name, as I ought to have told you before,
Is really Asparagus. That’s such a fuss
To pronounce, that we usually call him just Gus.
His coat’s very shabby, he’s thin as a rake,
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.
Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats
But no longer a terror to mice or to rats.
For he isn’t the Cat that he was in his prime;
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in his time.
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree
He has acted with Irving, he’s acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.
But his grandest creation, as he loves to tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.”
“He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!
And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair
But it’s useless to investigate Mcavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
‘It must have been Macavity!’ but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long-division sums.
Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spaer:
At whatever time the deed took place MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!”
“Old Deuteronomy‘s lived a long time;
He’s a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession.
Old Deuteronomy’s buried nine wives
And more – I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline.
At the sight of that placid and bland physiognomy,
When he sits in the sun on the vicarage wall,
The Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well, of all …
Things … Can it be … really! … No! … Yes! …
Oh, my eye!
My mind may be wandering, but I confess
I believe it is Old Deuteronomy!”
Old Deuteronomy sits in the street,
He sits in the High Street on market day;
The bullocks may bellow, the sheep they may bleat,
But the dogs and the herdsman will turn them away.
The cars and the lorries run over the kerb,
And the villagers put up a notice: ROAD CLOSED –
So that nothing untoward may chance to disturb
Deuteronomy’s rest when he feels so disposed
Or when he’s engaged in domestic economy:
And the Oldest Inhabitant croaks: “Well of all …
Things … Can it be … really! … No! … Yes! …
Oh, my eye!
My sight’s unreliable, but I can guess
That the cause of the trouble is Old Deuteronomy!”
“The Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat:
If you offer him pheasant he would rather have grouse.
If you put him in a house he would much prefer a flat,
If you put him in a flat then he’d rather have a house.
If you set him on a mouse then he only wants a rat,
If you set him on a rat then he’d rather chase a mouse.
Yes the Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat –
And there isn’t any call for me to shout it:
For he will do
As he do do
And there’s no doing anything about it!
Magical Mr. Mistoffelees
“He is quiet and small, he is black
From his ears to the tip of his tail;
He can creep through the tiniest crack
He can walk on the narrowest rail.
He can pick any card from a pack,
He is equally cunning with dice;
He is always deceiving you into believing
That he’s only hunting for mice.
He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish-paste;
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it is merely misplaced –
You have seen it one moment, and then it is gawn!
But you’ll find it next week lying out on the lawn.
And we all say: OH!
Well I never!
Was there ever
A Cat so clever
As Magical Mr. Mistoffelees!
“Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones –
In fact, he’s remarkably fat.
He doesn’t haunt pubs – he has eight or nine clubs,
For he’s the St. James’s Street Cat!
He’s the Cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impeccable back.
In the whole of St. James’s the smartest of names is
The name of this Brummell of Cats;
And we’re all of us proud to be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!
“Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clown, quick-change comedians, tight-rope walkers and acrobats
They had extensive reputation. They made their home in Victoria Grove –
That was merely their centre of operation, for they were incurably given to rove.
They were very well know in Cornwall Gardens, in Launceston Place and in Kensington Square –
They had really a little more reputation than a couple of cats can very well bear.
If the area window was found ajar
And the basement looked like a field of war,
If a tile or two came loose on the roof,
Which presently ceased to be waterproof,
If the drawers were pulled out from the bedroom chests,
And you couldn’t find one of your winter vests,
Or after supper one of the girls
Suddenly missed her Woolworth pearls:
Then the family would say: “It’s that horrible cat!
It was Mungojerrie – or Rumpelteazer!” – And most of the time
they left it at that.
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer had a very unusual gift of the gab.
They were highly efficient cat-burglars as well, and remarkably smart at smash-and-grab.
They made their home in Victoria Grove. They had no regular occupation.
They were plausible fellows, and liked to engage a friendly policeman in conversation.
When the family assembled for Sunday dinner,
With their minds made up that they wouldn’t get thinner
On Argentine joint, potatoes and greens,
And the cook would appear from behind the scenes
And say in a voice that was broken with sorrow:
“I’m afraid you must wait and have dinner tomorrow!
For the joint has gone from the oven-like that!”
Then the family would say: “It’s that horrible cat!
It was Mungojerrie–or Rumpelteazer!” – And most of the time
they left it at that.
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer had a wonderful way of working together.
And some of the time you would say it was luck, and some of the time you would say it was weather.
They would go through the house like a hurricane, and no sober person could take his oath
Was it Mungojerrie – or Rumpelteazer? or could you have sworn that it mightn’t be both?
And when you heard a dining-room smash
Or up from the pantry there came a loud crash
Or down from the library came a loud ping
From a vase which was commonly said to be Ming –
Then the family would say: “Now which was which cat?
It was Mungojerrie! AND Rumpelteazer!” – And there’s nothing
at all to be done about that!