Featured Poem: Milk for the Cat by Harold Monro

In last week’s Featured Poem, we were set abuzz with high praise and appreciation for the quite small but certainly more-than-perfectly formed humble bumblebee; even if we’re not currently in the most suitable climate to find them flying around, considering the very many things they do for us the very least we can do in return is to give them a firm tip of the hat (perhaps the phrase ‘bee in your bonnet’ could be remodelled to take in that substantially more positive meaning? Or maybe not…). It occurred to me, during that poetic tribute to the inhabitants of hives – workers and Queens alike – that one of the most defining characteristics of us Brits is that we’re most certainly a nation of animal lovers. From the tiniest tortoise to the biggest beluga whale (not that you see many of those about on these shores), we go gooey over them all. The presence of our furry or feathered (and various other textured) friends are as significant in our lives as that of our fellow men and women; for a large proportion of the time, it could even be said that they mean a great deal more to us than human companions, offering never-ending comfort, love and a listening ear without interjection and interruption (aside from the odd bark and purr for food). And our love for the animal kingdom at large is borne out by the sheer wealth of poetry dedicated to it: in fact, given time and effort, it would probably be fairly easy to replicate Noah’s Ark through poems (a potential literary project for animal lovers to take on…?).

Out of a vast menagerie of pets and cuddly (or otherwise) creatures that can share our homes and hearts, there are two faithful friends that seem to stand out from the crowd. Indeed, even if we don’t have one ourselves, we’re categorised by our preferences for one or the other (although, the rivalry is not quite as strong as that between reds and blues). Yes, each of us is either firmly a cat or dog person; a feline fan or a canine enthusiast. First off, we’ll take the side of the cat lovers and pay homage to moggies both slinky, sleek and slightly more dishevelled, mysterious and mischievous, lithe and lazy – but all loving. Not to mention the fact that those nine lives come in very handy – and with the amount of literary cats lurking on pages, with their lives combined surely they’re immortal. Of course, the king of literary cat lovers has to be T.S Eliot, accompanied by his collection of Practical Cats including Shimbleshanks, Macavity and Mr. Mistoffelees (is there any greater name for a feline? If so I don’t think I’ve heard it). And another quite lovely poetic portrait of a puss – one that we’ve picked out especially to celebrate everything about cats – was created by one of Eliot’s closest friends, Harold Monro. From last week’s makers of honey we move on to a consumer of milk – and this cat certainly is on a mission, setting the ‘full moon’ white saucer firmly in its sights. Despite its rather one track mind about one of the most primitive needs in life, this poem is a wonderfully evocative snapshot of a kitty; one you can’t really help falling in love with, cat person or not. Not to mention that I’m sure most of us envy leading such a charmed life fulfilled by simple pleasure, and would rather like to swap places being curled up and the epitome of cosiness on these rather chilly nights…

Milk for the Cat

When the tea is brought at five o’clock,
And all the neat curtains are drawn with care,
The little black cat with bright green eyes
Is suddenly purring there.

At first she pretends, having nothing to do,
She has come in merely to blink by the grate,
But, though tea may be late or the milk may be sour,
She is never late.

And presently her agate eyes
Take a soft large milky haze,
And her independent casual glance
Becomes a stiff, hard gaze.

Then she stamps her claws or lifts her ears,
Or twists her tail and begins to stir,
Till suddenly all her lithe body becomes
One breathing, trembling purr.

The children eat and wriggle and laugh;
The two old ladies stroke their silk:
But the cat is grown small and thin with desire,
Transformed to a creeping lust for milk.

The white saucer like some full moon descends
At last from the clouds of the table above;
She sighs and dreams and thrills and glows,
Transfigured with love.

She nestles over the shining rim,
Buries her chin in the creamy sea;
Her tail hangs loose; each drowsy paw
Is doubled under each bending knee.

A long, dim ecstasy holds her life;
Her world is an infinite shapeless white,
Till her tongue has curled the last holy drop,
Then she sinks back into the night,

Draws and dips her body to heap
Her sleepy nerves in the great arm-chair,
Lies defeated and buried deep
Three or four hours unconscious there.

Harold Monro (1879-1932)

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