47:  Of Poems, and the Wisdom of Cats

Gib, looking large-eyed and self important.We’ve had no rain of late.  The crops may suffer, and many may suffer by that.  (I won’t, but the lesser sort will.)

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.

A grey cat with green eyes walking through grass.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.

Flowering Hawthorn (Mayflowers) against a tree trunk in a misty landscape.

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.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe 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”.


20: Teasel Puss and the Man-Bull

A Brownie Kitling.
A Brownie Kitling

I have more paper, and can finish my tale of the monster in the laprint [labyrinth].

There was living at that time a young gib cat called Teasel.  He was nowt to look at, being of a brownie hue, but he was stout of heart.

Dried Teasel Heads. Didier Descouens Photo.
Dried Teasel Heads. Photo by Didier Descouens – Wikimedia Commons.

He had a good place with a spinster.

When he came to her house as a little kitling and first saw her dog, he bristled up.  She sayt he looked like one of the teasel heads that fullers use to brush their cloth, and so she named him Teasel Puss.

One night a cat gave newes that the Man-Bull’s mother was looking for more young cats.

And a cat who had employment in the alehouse sayt he heard that once she had cats enough, she lured them into the laprint where the Man-Bull was lodged.  She promised them games, and a good dinner.

Her monstrous son played with them a while, then changed hisself from bull above and man below to man above and bull below.  And ate them, every one.

But other cats sayt this was nowt but beer-talk.

Teasel offered to go to the laprint and learn the truth of it.

Some cats cried:  You have a place now. Wherefore [why] seek you one that another cat might have?

A wise few begged him to stay at home, saying the alehouse cat spoke true.

Teasel stood firm.    He called for eight young he-cats and nine young she-cats to join him.

Then he told all the bold cats who came forward to drink as much water as they might before their journey, and to hold it in as best they could.  And when he left his spinster’s house he carried in his mouth a great ball of her yarn.  He sayt it was a gift for the Man-Bull.  

The Man-Bull’s mother led the cats into the laprint.  Teasel walked beside her with the yarn.  The other cats came soft behind.  Teasel had told them to take it in turn to raise a tail or squat to mark each corner.  And to rub their faces against the wall along the way.

As they neared the centre of the laprint, they could hear the Man-Bull bellowing.  The wicked woman ran off, for now she feared her son.

Teasel sayt he would go first to greet him.

The monster was in bull shape above his middle, and seemed most amiable.  They played with the yarn, and Teasel wound it around his forelegs.

Then the Man-Bull tired of the game and changed hisself about, man above and bull below.  He made to seize Teasel with his hands and devour him.

But his wrists were bound tight with yarn.

Teasel gave a great screech, and leapt upon the monster’s back.  He sank his teeth into his neck.  The other cats came running.  They bit and clawed that Man-Bull till he fell, bleeding from a thousand wounds.

Then Teasel called:  Flee!  You’ve marked the corners we must turn, and left your scents along the walls.  Follow your marks to scape this laprint!

Part of a Roman Frieze showing a Minotaur with Felines.
Part of a Roman Frieze showing a Minotaur with Cats. Photo by Sailko – Wikimedia Commons.

All ran and came safe home.  Though, to speak true, some had mothers who were not joyed to see them.  They sayt: What?  You here again?  I thought you had employment.

But when word spread that they’d slain the Man-Bull, all were offered places in good households.

And Teasel’s mistress never arrkst where was her ball of yarn.

Toutparmoi - Editor's NoteWhen Gib describes Teasel’s mistress as a spinster he’s giving her occupation, i.e. a woman who earns her living by spinning.  She may have been unmarried, but could have been married, or a widow. 

In Gib’s day, the word was used with its traditional meaning, although its more “modern” one might have been creeping into use.  It became a legal definition of marital status in the 17th century.

I don’t know what sources (other than Ovid’s Metamorphoses) Gib derived his tale from.  The Minotaur is traditionally portrayed with a bull’s head.  Ovid describes him as half-bull and half-man, but doesn’t say which half was which.  Gib’s Minotaur seems to have a degree of choice.

The photo above showing a Minotaur with large felines may hint at a legend Gib knew, but we don’t.  Perhaps a cat called Teasel Puss was the true hero, but Theseus took the credit?