Thursday, May 06, 2010

Not about Politics

We’re back, and it was a great success. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow – today is needed for convalescence.

Do you recognise these lines?

'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.

They are from Thomas Gray’s “On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes." You can read the rest of it here, along with his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, if you like.

I ask because, while we were in London, we saw the very vase on whose rim Selima had perched, and were both deeply moved. It belonged to Horace Walpole, whose cat she was. It’s in a show at the V&A.

When we got back, we asked Rachel, who didn’t know the poem. Later that evening, we spoke to my sister in CT via Skype. She had actually embarked on a PhD in Eng Lit at Yale long ago, before she chucked it in and turned to medicine. She didn’t know the poem. The next evening Rachel’s daughter Hellie came to supper, who read Eng Lit at Newcastle and now works for a literary agency. (Very happy – she’s having a great time.) She didn’t know the poem.

What is the use of a common culture, if no one knows what you’re talking about? Please, someone, tell me you recognise those words.


  1. Sorry Jean, I don't recognize the poem....but now upon reading it, I too would certainly be moved if I were to see the vase.

  2. JennyS9:34 AM

    Yes! I had an English teacher who was very keen on Gray, and took us on a trip to see the Country Churchyard itself (and Milton's cottage which is nearby), after we had read lots of the poetry - I think it was in our Poetry Anthologies. Also I have a bit of a thing about cat poems....

  3. yes, i recognise these words... and I didn't study literature in Uni. I did study a few pieces by Gray at bx hs of science

  4. Sorry, no - and I'm a Literature and Creative Media undergraduate. Now if it had been Blake ...

  5. Sorry Jean, not that one. In conversation this past week I quoted from the "Jabberwocky." My listeners concluded that I had finally slipped a cog and was now rightly a "potty old lady."
    How sad that poetry is not taught in the schools any more.

  6. Welcome back and no. Sorry. Although the other day "Bess the landlord's black eyed daughter" came swimming up into my brain. From where I have no idea.

  7. Yes! My father worked for a company that printed and bound books when I was a child. He would go through the "rejects" before they where shredded and bring them home. He loved poetry and would read it aloud to me in the evenings. I was probably 7 or 8 before I realized that books normally had fronts and backs rather than just held together with thread and glue on the edges.

  8. I grew up in the SF Bay Area and memorized it for 9th grade English. We had one of those change-your-life English teachers. The tragic Selima was most compelling to a 14 year old girl. Interestingly enough, I encountered it again when completing a BA in Art History (Orientalism in English Art, I expect).

  9. Gerri4:34 PM

    No, I don't. My parents were scientists and my education was strongly bent in that direction. My father would recite the Rubaiyat and Robert Service, neither of which counts in this discussion. Common humanity, yes, common reading habits, well, I guess not!

  10. Anonymous5:49 PM

    Sadly, culture is not common, but idiosyncratic at best. Most Americans can't even recognize anything from Shakespeare; most wouldn't recognize any poetry at all, not even Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" which used to be hammered into every junior high school student. I majored in English (focussing on 19th-century novels, admittedly) and had never read this poem, but now I can thank you for introducing it to me.
    "Idiosyncratic" is the word: I have known e.e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town" by heart since I was 14. I know "Jabberwocky" of course, and in French as well as English (oddly, I also have "Xanadu" in both languages). And-- like most people, I suspect-- I probably have hundreds of song lyrics by heart for every line of poetry memorized.
    -- Gretchen

  11. Yes, I've met it before. That eighteenth century habit of circumlocution - or the mock-heroic manner, if you like - tends to bamboozle the young. I tried a sample of "The Rape of the Lock" with my IB students and it foxed them completely.

  12. Lydia7:49 PM

    I did recognize it and a joy it was to see it. Even if I have a degree in literature this was not part of it, but I guess that my lifelong interest in cats caused me to find it long ago just as the T.S.Eliot "Old Possum´s book...".

  13. I started to read it out to my father (87) and he went on and recited several more lines. Yes, he did read English at university a long time ago. He introduced me to Gray when I was about 10 - you do read that sort of thing if you are stuck in the Australian bush with nothing else to read. I suppose I could be called fortunate!

  14. My father loved poetry and instilled in me a similar love. I know the poem and Gray's "Elegy..." as well. I have taught school for 30 years, and can vouch for the sad fact that today's students are not receiving instruction in poetry that once was a common part of our culture. Rap music is more familiar than Robert Frost or any of the English poets. Tragic.

  15. I didn't recognize the lines, and shame on me, because I've read and enjoyed Philip Davis's Thomas Gray, Philosopher Cat and Thomas Gray in Copenhagen.

    Glad to have you back from London!

  16. =Tamar4:18 AM

    I know I read some Walpole but it was a long time ago. I find it much easier to learn things if they fit a tune (Jabberwocky fits "Greensleeves").

  17. Yes, I recognise this immediately - and my degree was in Physics.

  18. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Is not this the very poem that we get the phrase "all that glitters is not gold?" from? I think the poem actually phrases it slightly different. And the idea of a cat having 9 lives? It was my favorite poem from British Lit.