The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

February 2, 2017

February 2, 1886

William Rose Benét (February 2, 1886 to May 4, 1950) is of a perennial type in the art world: while seemingly trendy and avant-garde, in retrospect his talent is marred by his obliviousness to the mundane. Benet started the Saturday Review (1924) shortly after he married the exotic and scandalous Elinor Wylie (1923). This couple, in an era of famous couples, was splashy. His reference work, The Reader's Encyclopedia (1948) is not exciting now, but before the advent of internet access, it was highly regarded.

In his book of poems The Falconer of God, (1914) there is a poem quoted here in its entirety. Right off his tinny rhyming strikes one, and the occasional clumsy grammatical stretch  necessitated by them.

THE CATS OF COBBLESTONE STREET

Close the high-stooped houses stood
In that quiet neighborhood,
Undisturbed by trucks or vans,
Pushcarts with their fruit and pans,
Scavengers with sticks and bags,
Or the junk-man crying "Rags!"—
No, not even gutter-brats.
But, at night, it swarmed with cats!
Slinking cats and blinking cats,
Cats to chase and cats to clamber,
(Eyes like topaz, eyes like amber),
Round about each garbage can,
In and out of areas ran,
Scrawny cats, with deep aversion
To the Maltese or the Persian
(Soft and sleek that purr and mew
Where the wealthy avenue
Boasts its brownstone "No-admittance !"
To all ragged stranger kittens.)

Here, as street-lamps sparked and sputtered
O’er the cobbled street unguttered,
Shade to glare and glare to shade
Moved the feline promenade,
Brindled, blacker than the Devil,
Toms and tabbies in a revel,
Like familiars known to witches,
Like the mouser brought such riches
To Dick Whittington in history,
Like Egyptian cats of mystery,
Crouching, scampering, stalking, squawling,
Spitting fire or caterwauling,
Licking sores, rampant or sleeping,—-
’Faith, it set my skin to creeping
As I viewed them, perched on high
In my window next the sky!


Every window blankly glistened,
And the dark street slept—and listened.
Clap-clap-clap! A footfall faint.
Then the Elevated’s plaint,
Grinding on the curve afar.
Then a distant surface-car
Jarring past; a "cop’s" night-stick
Rapping quickly on the brick;
Meanwhile——cats—in swirling mazes,
Mid the harbor-fog’s night hazes
That came seeping from the river
Setting dainty dreams ashiver
To the long lugubrious moaning
Of the river-craft intoning,—
Cats that overflowed each curbing
With an aimlessness disturbing,
Prowling, yowling,—yowling, prowling,
With such grinning, and such scowling!
Cat Luculluses that sought,
’Mid much refuse, feasts unbought;
Cats that wooed and cats that fought!
Oh, for some black plague of rats
That would rid my street of cats!


They would slither ’twixt your feet,
Coming home along the street.
As you fumbled for your keys
They would stalk by twos and threes
Like fierce bandits at your back,
Wildly whiskered, cloaked in black.
They would haunt the steps thereafter
Spreading scandal, faint with laughter
Of a still, demoniac kind
That was never to my mind.
And their cries! So strangely human,—
Gasping child—heart-broken woman!

So one’s dreams (each dawn upbraided)
With gigantic cats paraded;
Cats that walked the moonlit sill
In a pageant never still,
Cats that, writhing, seemed to rise
From the street and fill the skies
Like a locust-cloud by day,
Like a feline Milky Way,
Where the moon, great puss of space,
With one cloud-paw washed its face,
Licked its lips and grinned again
Down on scampering mice and men!



The poem above is actually interesting, and argument against my classification of William Rose Benet.

There is a redeeming brilliance here: specifically, we have the first portrayal of the cat as a modern urban creature, a beast caught between the neglect of a Victorian architecture which yet left the feline free, and the deathly hazards of a world of screeching vehicles. This in between state I do not recall captured anywhere else, and I am not sure Benet appreciated his own accomplishment. But his poem is a monument that should not be neglected. His verses give a context to ailurophobia by painting it as a shade of modern unease.



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