Thomas Gray: Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat

Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes


‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,

Where China’s gayest art had dyed

The azure flowers that blow;

Demurest of the tabby kind,

The pensive Selima reclined,

Gazed on the lake below.


Her conscious tail her joy declared;

The fair round face, the snowy beard,

The velvet of her paws,

Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,

Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,

She saw; and purred applause.


Still had she gazed; but ‘midst the tide

Two angel forms were seen to glide,

The genii of the stream:

The scaly armor’s Tyrian hue

Through richest purple to the view

Betrayed a golden gleam.


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?


Presumptuous maid! with looks intent

Again she stretched, again she bent,

Nor knew the gulf between.

(Malignant Fate sat by and smiled)

The slippery verge her feet beguiled,

She tumbled headlong in.


Eight times emerging from the flood

She mewed to every watery god,

Some speedy aid to send.

No dolphin came, no nereid stirred:

Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.

A favorite has no friend!


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.


Source: Greenblatt, Stephen, and M. H. Abrams. “Thomas Gray.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton, 2006. 1330-332. Print.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was a poet during the mid-eighteenth-century at Cambridge. He was the only child of twelve to survive, and according to the Norton Anthology, his family life was “desperately unhappy.” He was somewhat of a recluse, although he did take a tour of France and Italy with Horace Walpole. Rarely satisfied with his writings, he did not publish often.

This poem reads like a fable, and in the battle between fish and cat we rarely expect cat to fail! Gray applies the human characteristic of greed to this feline muse.

What do you think Gray means when he writes, “Not all that tempts your wandering eyes/ And heedless hearts is lawful prize;”? Do you ever notice human characteristics and emotions in animals? If so, what have you noticed?

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nereid – n. sea nymph.

Source: same.

[ _ ] an insertion made to distinguish stanzas, correct spacing not enabled by site format.

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