Poetry Tuesday: A Favourite Has No Friend

When his friend Horace Walpole’s cat drowned in a goldfish bowl, Thomas Gray was inspired to pen a mock serious poem on the event, with a moral lesson for women that would serve them well today. The lady-cat, he imagines, was tempted into her fatal fall by the flash of the golden fish:

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw
With many an ardent wish
She stretch’d, in vain, to reach the prize—
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat’s averse to fish?

After the cat’s pitiful death, Gray’s moral follows:

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!

In the modern environment of normalized premarital sex, his strictness (“one false step is ne’er retrieved”) will be repellent to many. But he is, after all, simply stating a obvious truth: what is done cannot be undone.

It’s not difficult to interpret the moral as more than a warning against premarital sex. The earlier line “a favourite has no friend” holds the key of a broader interpretation. When women ride the carousel, they enjoy being favorites, but they earn no friend to save them when they are drowning. In fact, they render themselves unsuitable to ever have a friend, i.e. devoted strong man, to be with them when they are too old to be a favorite any longer.

The cat’s owner, incidentally, is mentioned in Monty Python’s famous cheese shop sketch, although the work that Cleese was reading is in fact by Hugh Walpole, not Horace.

The full poem is below the line.

——————————–

On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

’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 purr’d applause.

Still had she gazed, but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple, to the view
Betray’d a golden gleam.

The hapless Nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw
With many an ardent wish
She stretch’d, 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 stretch’d, 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 mew’d to every watery God
Some speedy aid to send:—
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr’d.
Nor cruel Tom nor Susan heard—
A favourite 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!

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About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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