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Short poem

William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Retired Cat

              1A poet's cat, sedate and grave
              2As poet well could wish to have,
              3Was much addicted to inquire
              4For nooks to which she might retire,
              5And where, secure as mouse in chink,
              6She might repose, or sit and think.
              7I know not where she caught the trick--
              8Nature perhaps herself had cast her
              9In such a mould philosophique,
            10Or else she learn'd it of her master.
            11Sometimes ascending, debonair,
            12An apple-tree or lofty pear,
            13Lodg'd with convenience in the fork,
            14She watch'd the gardener at his work;
            15Sometimes her ease and solace sought
            16In an old empty wat'ring-pot;
            17There, wanting nothing save a fan
            18To seem some nymph in her sedan,
            19Apparell'd in exactest sort,
            20And ready to be borne to court.

            21     But love of change, it seems, has place
            22Not only in our wiser race;
            23Cats also feel, as well as we,
            24That passion's force, and so did she.
            25Her climbing, she began to find,
            26Expos'd her too much to the wind,
            27And the old utensil of tin
            28Was cold and comfortless within:
            29She therefore wish'd instead of those
            30Some place of more serene repose,
            31Where neither cold might come, nor air
            32Too rudely wanton with her hair,
            33And sought it in the likeliest mode
            34Within her master's snug abode.

            35     A drawer, it chanc'd, at bottom lin'd
            36With linen of the softest kind,
            37With such as merchants introduce
            38From India, for the ladies' use--
            39A drawer impending o'er the rest,
            40Half-open in the topmost chest,
            41Of depth enough, and none to spare,
            42Invited her to slumber there;
            43Puss with delight beyond expression
            44Survey'd the scene, and took possession.
            45Recumbent at her ease ere long,
            46And lull'd by her own humdrum song,
            47She left the cares of life behind,
            48And slept as she would sleep her last,
            49When in came, housewifely inclin'd
            50The chambermaid, and shut it fast;
            51By no malignity impell'd,
            52But all unconscious whom it held.

            53     Awaken'd by the shock, cried Puss,
            54"Was ever cat attended thus!
            55The open drawer was left, I see,
            56Merely to prove a nest for me.
            57For soon as I was well compos'd,
            58Then came the maid, and it was clos'd.
            59How smooth these kerchiefs, and how sweet!
            60Oh, what a delicate retreat!
            61I will resign myself to rest
            62Till Sol, declining in the west,
            63Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,
            64Susan will come and let me out."

            65     The evening came, the sun descended,
            66And puss remain'd still unattended.
            67The night roll'd tardily away
            68(With her indeed 'twas never day),
            69The sprightly morn her course renew'd,
            70     The evening gray again ensued,
            71And puss came into mind no more
            72han if entomb'd the day before.
            73With hunger pinch'd, and pinch'd for room,
            74She now presag'd approaching doom,
            75Nor slept a single wink, or purr'd,
            76Conscious of jeopardy incurr'd.

            77     That night, by chance, the poet watching
            78Heard an inexplicable scratching;
            79His noble heart went pit-a-pat
            80And to himself he said, "What's that?"
            81He drew the curtain at his side,
            82And forth he peep'd, but nothing spied;
            83Yet, by his ear directed, guess'd
            84Something imprison'd in the chest,
            85And, doubtful what, with prudent care
            86Resolv'd it should continue there.
            87At length a voice which well he knew,
            88A long and melancholy mew,
            89Saluting his poetic ears,
            90Consol'd him, and dispell'd his fears:
            91He left his bed, he trod the floor,
            92He 'gan in haste the drawers explore,
            93The lowest first, and without stop
            94The rest in order to the top;
            95For 'tis a truth well known to most,
            96That whatsoever thing is lost,
            97We seek it, ere it come to light,
            98In ev'ry cranny but the right.
            99Forth skipp'd the cat, not now replete
          100As erst with airy self-conceit,
          101Nor in her own fond apprehension
          102A theme for all the world's attention,
          103But modest, sober, cured of all
          104Her notions hyperbolical,
          105And wishing for a place of rest
          106Anything rather than a chest.
          107Then stepp'd the poet into bed,
          108With this reflection in his head:


          109Beware of too sublime a sense
          110Of your own worth and consequence.
          111The man who dreams himself so great,
          112And his importance of such weight,
          113That all around in all that's done
          114Must move and act for him alone,
          115Will learn in school of tribulation
          116The folly of his expectation.


1] This poem is one of a number of humorous narratives which Cowper wrote. In a letter to Lady Hesketh dated November 10, 1787, Cowper wrote as follows: "I have a kitten, the drollest of all creatures that ever wore a cat's skin. Her gambols are not to be described, and would be incredible, if they could. In point of size she is likely to be a kitten always, being extremely small of her age, but time, I suppose, that spoils everything, will make her also a cat. You will see her, I hope, before that melancholy period shall arrive, for no wisdom that she may gain by experience and reflection hereafter will compensate the loss of her present hilarity. She is dressed in a tortoise-shell suit, and I know you will delight in her."

18] sedan: carriage.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Hayley, Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper (Chichester: J. Seagrave; for J. Johnson, London, 1803-04.) E-10 3766 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1803
RPO poem editor: G. G. Falle
RP edition: 3RP 2.259.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/12*1:2002/10/12

Composition date: 1791
Form: Short Couplets

Other poems by William Cowper