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  • The Sane, the Mad, the Good, the Bad:T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
  • Marion C. Hodge

In general, T. S. Eliot's poetry is intellectual, subtle, static, lyrical. Nothing much happens in it. There are few characters, and they do little except think. Prufrock takes a walk, climbs stairs. Gerontion is "an old man in a dry mouth / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain."1 In The Waste Land, Madame Sosostris tells fortunes, Phlebas the Phoenician drowns, and, at the conclusion, the narrator sits "upon the shore / Fishing . . ." In Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets, there are no characters at all, no activity; there is only meditation. The most vigorous narratives in Eliot's "serious" work are those concerning the sexual grubbiness of the typist and "the young man carbuncular" in The Waste Land, and that of Sweeney in several short poems. For the most part, then, Eliot's poetry is thought and symbol, state of mind, state of consciousness. His themes are commonly the emotional and moral sterility of modern civilization and the hope for the renewal of an abiding, satisfying faith, a mythology that will order the present chaos and evil. Implicit in these themes is a vision of humanity as vulgar, powerless, and depraved.

But when Eliot writes for children, some things are different. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats there is much more action, more narrative, little abstraction, no stream of consciousness. There are many characters in these poems, several of whom are criminals, and there is a great deal of violence, although Eliot here is less serious than in his other work: sometimes he is downright playful.

But even when writing for children, the moralist in Eliot cannot be suppressed. Just as he is drawn to the symbol in his "serious" poems, he is drawn to the fable in these poems for children. In Prufrock, in The Waste Land, in Four Quartets, he preaches to adults. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, he preaches to children (and adults). He dispels any doubts about his intentions, any doubts that the cats he describes are not symbols for human beings, in the concluding poem of the series, "The Ad-dressing of Cats": [End Page 129]

You now have learned enough to seeThat Cats are much like you and meAnd other people whom we findPossessed of various types of mind.For some are sane and some are madAnd some are good and some are bad. . .

(11. 5-10)

Nor is Eliot's vision of mankind's depravity and violence changed. The most obvious theme of these beast fables is the imperfectibility of catkind/mankind. This theme is explored through the many criminals who are main characters, and, except for a few instances, through those cats who are not outlaws but are nevertheless subjects of satire rather than praise. The second important theme of Practical Cats is that of order in a violent, chaotic world.

The imperfectibility of mankind is a stated theme in three poems, "The Old Gumbie Cat," "The Rum Tum Tugger," and "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer."

"The Old Gumbie Cat" describes the attitudes and actions of Jennyanydots, a reformer of the "let's be up and doing," "learn a trade and become a productive member of society" school of thought. Part of the Gumbie Cat's nature is to be idle: "All day . . ./ She sits and sits and sits and sits" (11. 3-4), and so she seems to be an idle rich type. During the night she becomes active, and sneaks into the basement, being "deeply concerned with the ways of the mice"(1.9), cockroaches, and beetles who live there.

From what are these unsavory characters to be saved by their social and cultural superior? Well, Jennyanydots does not like the mice because "Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice" (1.10) and because they "will not ever keep quiet" (1. 19). She is disgusted by the cockroaches' "idle and wanton destroyment" (1. 32). Jennyanydots, like many of her ilk, is prone to think in stereotypes.

Because the indictment of the mice, cockroaches, and beetles is...


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