Cats in the Enlightenment (Part 9 – William Cowper’s Cat Poems)

William Cowper Pastel, 1792 George Romney National Portrait Gallery, London cats in poetry

William Cowper
Pastel, 1792
George Romney
National Portrait Gallery, London

By and large, the cat was highly thought of during this age especially by those eccentrics who were judged to be a bit mad.   William Cowper (1751-1800), who had bouts of madness and depression was no less a great poet.  His first volume of poems published in 1782, was, by his death in 1800, so popular that it had already been reprinted 10 times.  Cowper espoused the beliefs of the time:  a love of nature and thereby a love of animals.  In The Retired Cat written in 1791, the plight of his cat that has become trapped in a dresser drawer seems a good opportunity for a moral. 


A POET’S cat, sedate and grave,
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks, to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught the trick—
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould PHILOSOPHIQUE,
Or else she learn’d it of her master.
Sometimes ascending, debonair,
An apple-tree or lofty pear,
Lodg’d with convenience in the fork,
She watched the gard’ner at his work;
Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty wat’ring-pot,
There, wanting nothing, save a fan,
To seem some nymph in her sedan,
Apparell’d in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to court.
     But love of change it seems has place
Not only in our wiser race;
Cats also feel as well as we
That passion’s force, and so did she.
Her climbing, she began to find,
Expos’d her too much to the wind,
And the old utensil of tin
Was cold and comfortless within:
She therefore wish’d instead of those,
Some place of more serene repose,
Where neither cold might come, nor air
Too rudely wanton with her hair,
And sought it in the likeliest mode
Within her master’s snug abode.
     A draw’r,—it chanc’d, at bottom lin’d
With linen of the softest kind,
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies’ use,—
A draw’r impending o’er the rest,
Half open in the topmost chest,
Of depth enough, and none to spare,
Invited her to slumber there.

cat in drawer - cat poems

Courtesy of Photomars-Stock

Puss with delight beyond expression
Survey’d the scene, and took possession.
Recumbent at her ease ere long,
And lull’d by her own hum-drum song,
She left the cares of life behind,
And slept as she would sleep her last,
When in came, housewifely inclin’d,
The chambermaid, and shut it fast,
By no malignity impell’d,
But all unconscious whom it held.
     Awaken’d by the shock (cried puss)
Was ever cat attended thus!
The open draw’r was left, I see,
Merely to prove a nest for me,
For soon as I was well compos’d,
Then came the maid, and it was closed:
How smooth these ‘kerchiefs, and how sweet,
O what a delicate retreat!
I will resign myself to rest
Till Sol, declining in the west,
Shall call to supper; when, no doubt,
Susan will come and let me out.
     The evening came, the sun descended,
And puss remain’d still unattended.
The night roll’d tardily away,
(With her indeed ’twas never day)
The sprightly morn her course renew’d,
The evening gray again ensued,
And puss came into mind no more
Than if entomb’d the day before.
With hunger pinch’d, and pinch’d for room,
She now presag’d approaching doom,
Nor slept a single wink, or purr’d,
Conscious of jeopardy incurr’d.
     That night, by chance, the poet watching,
Heard an inexplicable scratching,
His noble heart went pit-a-pat,
And to himself he said—what’s that?
He drew the curtain at his side,
And forth he peep’d, but nothing spied.
Yet, by his ear directed, guess’d
Something imprison’d in the chest,
And doubtful what, with prudent care,
Resolv’d it should continue there.
At length a voice, which well he knew,
A long and melancholy mew,
Saluting his poetic ears,
Consol’d him, and dispell’d his fears;
He left his bed, he trod the floor,
He ‘gan in haste the draw’rs explore,
The lowest first, and without stop,
The rest in order to the top.
For ’tis a truth well known to most,
That whatsoever thing is lost,
We seek it, ere it come to light,
In ev’ry cranny but the right.
Forth skipp’d the cat; not now replete
As erst with airy self-conceit,
Nor in her own fond apprehension
A theme for all the world’s attention,
But modest, sober, cur’d of all
Her notions hyperbolical,
And wishing for a place of rest
Any thing rather than a chest:
Then stept the poet into bed,
With this reflection in his head:


Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence!
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around, in all that’s done,
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation,
The folly of his expectation. (Milford, 1905, pp.407-09)

 In another of Cowper’s poems, Familiarity Dangerous, he writes of a cat and her mistress who are playing, but the mistress is scratched.  The moral: don’t play with dangerous things.



As in her ancient mistress’ lap,

The youthful tabby lay,

They gave each other many a tap,

Alike dispos’d to play.


But strife ensues. Puss waxes warm,

And with protruded claws

Ploughs all the length of Lydia’s arm,

Mere wantonness the cause.


At once, resentful of the deed,

She shakes her to the ground

With many a threat, that she shall bleed

With still a deeper wound.


But Lydia, bid thy fury rest!

It was a venial stroke;

For she, that will with kittens jest,

Should bear a kitten’s joke. (Gooden, 1946, p. 50)

cats kittens poetry william cowper




Gooden, Mona. (1946). The poet’s cat: an anthology. Book for Libraries.

 Milford, H.S. e.d.(1905). The complete poetical works of William Cowper. London: Henry Frowde. pp. 407-9.


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats

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