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Cats as Metaphors

Guest Author - Jessica Smith

Cats have often been inspirations for poets, because there is much in them that is fascinating. Cats are a contradiction. They are fiercely independent, yet often affectionate and close. Their size does nothing to hinder their resemblance to larger feline relatives such as tigers and panthers, who no human can safely observe up close. Little wonder, then, that cats have been made the subject of countless numbers of intriguing poems.

A strong fascination of cats is clear in the poem “The Cat and the Moon"by William Butler Yeats. The poem describes the nighttime wanderings of the black cat Minnaloushe (supposedly the name of a cat owned by a friend of Yeats). As in the title, there exists a strong connection between the moon and “the nearest kin of the moon / the creeping cat? Both seem to rule the night, the moon overseeing above and the cat prowling below. Though at first Minnaloushe appears “troubled?by the moon, it becomes clear that Yeats is comparing the two, emphasizing their similarities. The moon is “sacred?while Minnaloushe is “alone, important and wise? Both are also creatures of change- the moon in its phases, the cat with its shifting eyes. The poem's tone treats of the mysterious, presenting Minnaloushe as some fairy-like or mythological creature connected to the magic of the moon. In a way, Minnaloushe metaphorically represents the night, the unknown and the secret powers of nature.

Rainer Maria Rilke also demonstrates the power of cats in his poem “Black Cat."When facing the black cat, the speaker feels drawn into its power, and even his “strongest gaze / will be absorbed and utterly disappear?into the cat's blackness. That power is absolute, literally trapping the speaker

inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

The cat is almost god-like, with complete control, absorbing the speaker as though into a black hole. Yet while the poem's title declares 'cat,' this does not necessarily mean the subject is an actual cat. The cat may be a metaphor, very likely for a woman, in whose power the speaker feels utterly helpless and overwhelmed. Rilke's choice of a cat for his metaphor is significant. A cat conjures up connotations of large beasts, sneaky, muscled and predatory, excellent at catching (and toying with) prey. Thus the cat serves the poem better than perhaps a bolder, more brutal animal like a bear, or a simpler, less predatory animal such as a mouse or bird.

Thomas Gray also used a cat as a metaphor in his poem “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat".With rich and vivid detail he describes a calico house cat who gazes lovingly upon her image in a tub of water. Suddenly spying golden fish beneath the surface, she reaches for them and falls in, drowning. Throughout, the cat is described as and compared to a young woman (“a female heart,?“presumptuous maid?. Staring at her reflection she is vain, and reaching for the gold she is greedy (though “hapless?. Gray ends his poem by revealing the metaphor and addressing young women directly:

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.

While Yeats displayed his cat in a mystical way, and Rilke's poem emphasized the underlying power and predatory aspects of cats, Gray utilizes the image of the indolent house cat, spoiled, pampered and foolish. The result is three very different poems, each with its own poetic merit.
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The Cat and the Moon by William Butler Yeats
Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke
Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat by Thomas Gray
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jessica Smith. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jessica Smith. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karena Andrusyshyn for details.

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