Poetique | Is Thomas Gray’s ‘Death of a Favourite Cat’ About Cats or Consumerism?


If you're a cat person and you haven't read Thomas Gray's poem, 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes', you're missing out (kind of)!

Here's a sampler:

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?

Written in a mock-heroic and mock-elegiac mode with fable-inspired elements, Gray's poem was a response to his friend Horace Walpole's request for an epitaph on one of his cats after the poor thing experienced death by drowning.

On the surface, the poem may seem well… about a tabby cat, but deep within it's a commentary on imperialism and consumerism in eighteenth-century England. Most significantly, the short poem says a ton about how women were viewed in relation to consumerism at the time.

The Hapless Nymph’s 'Fall'

To begin with, Selima—the name of the cat in the poem—is clearly an 'oriental' name. She is reclining on a China Tub containing goldfishes, which were popularly imported from China in eighteenth-century England.

Selima is also a female cat, described as a 'hapless nymph', who sees herself in the 'lake'—the water in the tub—while reclining on the goldfish-full China Tub. Note the use of the word 'hapless'. The word is also used in the context of Eve in Book IX of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Selima is unaware of her impending 'fall' just as Eve is. She looks at herself in the water with 'wonder' just as Eve looks at herself—in wonder and admiration—in the lake in Book IV of Milton's epic. It is Selima's 'ardent wish' to reach the 'prize' but her attempts are in vain. She 'falls' and drowns in the tub, as she gives in to temptation and greed.

What Female Heart Can Gold Despise?

Now here's where it gets interesting. Just as a desire for gold, the poem says, comes 'naturally' to women, it's a cat's natural instinct to prey on fish. Basically, the poem tells you that women are narcissistic and vain, gold-diggers and fallen creatures, in their attraction to and ambition towards the 'prize'.

Here's the thing. In eighteenth-century England, women were the primary consumers of the 'spoils' of colonial conquests, that is, the "various offerings of the world" that adorns Belinda's dressing table in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock: India's glowing gems, tortoise and elephant combs, the puffs, powders, and patches, and more.

In other words, men and poets proclaimed that the ladies just loved the 'imported stuff'. So, colonisers—that is, men again—justified imperial discourse by placing women as the primary consumers, who had to be impressed and satisfied, even at the cost of plundering 'foreign lands' and whole nations.

At the same time, women were also seen as vain and narcissistic, even amoral, for this endless consumption, even hoarding, of goods. 

Double-standards much? There may be a reason for it!

Domesticating the Imperial Ideal

Consumerist culture, which was a direct result of the colonial enterprise, brought with it its own anxieties. 

In "Why Selima Drowns: Thomas Gray and the Domestication of the Imperial Ideal", Suvir Kaul writes that since England, at the time, lacked an 'economic vocabulary', it chose to "domesticate the imperial ideal", which led to women—who are often seen at the centre of the domestic space—being extensively associated with the colonial mercantile enterprise.

Gray's 'Death of a Favourite Cat' records, with a considerable level of sass, this "influence of empire [and misogyny] on the poetic imagination", as Kaul terms it.

One can only wonder if Walpole understood these layers of meaning in this 'elegy' to his favourite cat. Nevertheless, what a way to remember Selima!
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Poetique (poetry + critique) is a series on this blog where we dissect and bring our own reading to works of poetic genius.
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