The Spirit of Grimalkin
Cat and Butterfly, Hokusai, Edo period,
Cats can be cruel and stingy and aloof (although most cats are far less aloof than has generally been supposed). And all of them are half insane. But I have never been disappointed or bored or, aside from several scratches and one particularly nasty bite, hurt by a cat. Most cats are interesting, and they are easy to love, which is more than anyone can say for most people.
It’s a cliche, I know. Van Vechten devotes an entire chapter of his indispensable The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat to “The Cat and the Poet.” Petrarch, Gray, Issa, Johnson, Smart, Eliot—the roster of poets who have found the cat good to think on is well known. Robert Duncan’s “cat is fluent. He/converses when he wants with me”; Marianne Moore’s cat “Peter” “can talk but insolently says nothing.” William Carlos Williams’s precisely poised syntax and enjambment step into the flowerpot with the cat. Keep the dog far hence, but let the cat, as Swinburne has it,
Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.
Van Vechten offers this typically cracked explanation for the cat/poet nexus:
Poets, I believe, are more closely in touch with the spirit of grimalkin, the soul of a pussy-cat, than either prose writers or painters. They should be, because poets are mystics, at least the great poets are mystics, speaking like the oracle or the clairvoyant…. The poet knocks at gates which sometimes open wide, disclosing gardens to which entrance is denied to those who stumble to find truth in reason and experience. Faith is needed to comprehend the cat, to understand that one can never completely comprehend the cat.
This contains a valuable insight about cats (and a lot of nonsense about poets). The cat brushes past our efforts to understand her. Montaigne’s famous question—“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”—deepens the more one considers it.