Practical Cats and Poetic Tempo

The other day I gave myself a treat and reread one of my favourite volumes of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.  I can’t remember when I first read this and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it (certainly well into double figures by now) but it always gives me great pleasure to return to it.  As with all good poetry, I think it works best when read aloud so that you can enjoy the sounds of the language.

I would struggle to choose my absolute favourite from among these poems, but there are several I’m particularly fond of.  One of these is “The Old Gumbie Cat”.  I particularly like this one because of the masterful way that Eliot uses a mixture of two different meters to signal changes in pace within the poem.

By day, the Gumbie Cat likes to do nothing more than sit in warm sunny places and the stanzas which describe this (numbers 1, 3 and 5) are written in iambic octameter (i.e. each line has eight feet, each with two syllables and the stress on the second one).  The length of the lines and the even distribution of stressed syllables makes this quite a leisurely meter which well captures the general relaxation of the cat’s lifestyle:

I have a Gumbie cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;

Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

All day she sits upon the stair…

In addition to the meter, the last line of each of these stanzas makes repeated use of the word “sits” to emphasise the laid-back nature  of the Gumbie Cat:

She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat.

By contrast, the even numbered stanzas describe the Gumbie Cat’s rather more active night life.  At this point the meter switches to using mostly dactyls (feet with 3 syllables and the stress on the first one):

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,

Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun…

In these first two lines from stanza two, the very first syllable of the first line is unstressed as are the first two of the second line (which effectively complete the final dactyl from the previous line).  The combination of shorter lines (roughly twelve syllables instead of 16) and the dactylic stress pattern give a much greater sense of movement which reinforces the description of the Gumbie Cat’s nocturnal busyness.

Incidentally (and possibly the reason why I was particularly sensitive to the meters this time I was reading Old Possum), I was recently trying to get my head round Dactylic Hexameter, the meter used throughout Homer’s poetry (and apparently the most common meter in ancient Greek poetry – possibly due at least in part to the major influence Homer had on later poets).  In ancient Greek verse, the feet determine the length of syllables instead of the stress pattern (long/short rather than stressed/unstressed) but the shape of the feet is essentially the same.  As the name suggests, dactylic hexameter consists of six feet per line.  Most of the feet are dactyls but some are spondees (two syllables, both long / stressed); in particular the final foot is always a spondee.  I cobbled together a line of dactylic hexameter (in English) which demonstrates the meter and describes the feet:

This is a dactyl and this is a spondee; here is another.

Apart from the final foot, which is always a spondee, there is more-or-less complete flexibility about which feet are dactyls and which are spondees, which allows for quite considerable variation of the rhythm within the confines of dactylic hexameter.  I’m not sure whether it’s required to have at least one dactyl in the line or whether a line consisting solely of spondees would be allowed.  So far the most spondees I’ve seen in a single line of Homer is 5 (which happens as early as Iliad 1:3).