In my house there’s been talk of my lord. Some say Lord Purrlie [Burghley] is out of patience with him because he does not wish to wed. And that a servant of Lord Purrlie’s writ a poem with a dedication to my lord.
I know what a dedication is. I see them in books. You tell rich folks that they’re the world’s wonder.
If they like what you’ve writ they’ll give you money, so you can write more.
I’ve no need to flatter rich folks, because I’m an Earl’s cat. And this other poet has a place in Lord Purrlie’s household, so he’s not like to want mine.
I haven’t seen his poem, but I hear tell it’s about Narcissus. I’ve read of him.
He was a pretty boy that all loved, but he loved no-one. One day he took a drink from a pool, and saw his own fair face in the water.
Then he loved himself, and wailed mightily about it, because when he reached into the pool his image dissolved. And so he found he couldn’t love himself even as he wished to. Yet he couldn’t come away from his face in that pool. (He never thought to return home and buy a mirror.)
He shrivelled and died there, and his corpse changed into a flower.
A clever tale about a fool boy.
We cats are too wise to gaze upon our own images. We know what will befall us if we do.
I may offer my deep-brained sonnet in honour of my friend Smokie to my lord. I’ve finished the rough of it. I turned to my book where I told of our meeting, and read of the scent Smokie had that was strange to me at first.
It was the smell of the smithy, where he learnt all the wicked words he knew.
I never went in there. Too clamorous. Now I wish I had. We poets should not be squeamish, for we never know what we may come to write of.
Shall I compare thee to a puff of smoke?
Thou art more furred, and less fumiferous.
Nor can my vap’rous senses well invoke
thy scents so sweetly odoriferous.
The smell of leathern aprons, and the shop
where hammers rang, and smith or ’prentice swore,
as, stung by sparks, they let some hot thing drop,
or taunted friends above the furnace’ roar.
But thou wert forged by Nature’s hand, I vow,
midst fragrant flowers where we fought in play.
Thy breath’s of milk fresh squirted from the cow,
thine hue from clouds that slake the burning day.
And if, in this, fond judgement is bewrayed,
I never writ, nor no cat ever sprayed.
Now, here’s a strange thing. I became so carried away by my lines, my rhymes, my meanings, and the Queen Cat of Heaven knows what else, I ceased to think of Smokie and told a lie, as poets do.
My senses are not vaporous [foggy]. But fog is like to smoke and my sonnet is a matter of conceits, so I must feign to be a fogwit.
And I like not that word “odoriferous”, but it’s a better word than “odiferous”.
When I finished, I was so joyed I leapt up and ran about like a mad thing. The kitchen cat joined me in my frolick.
Some sayt, “Why are the cats so skittish? Shall we have rain?”
Which shows how little they know us.
The Latin poem Narcissus by John Clapham (1566-1619) was published in 1591. He may have written it at Lord Burghley’s instigation to steer the unwilling young Earl towards marriage, or he may not. What the Earl thought of it is unknown.
Gib’s no help – he’s more interested in Ovid’s version of the story in Metamorphoses, and the wisdom of cats who can’t be ensnared by their own reflections. And his own poem, of course. I think Gib’s fine phrase “fond judgement is bewrayed” means “a foolish opinion is revealed”.