Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

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Spotlight on T.S. Eliot

Born in 1888 in Saint Louis, Missouri, America, Harvard alumnus Thomas Stearns Eliot, who became a British citizen in 1927 after residing in the United Kingdom for 12 years prior, is widely regarded as one of our greatest writers. Whilst mostly noted for his poetry, TS Eliot also wrote verse plays and a range of literary and social criticism.

Eliot received many honours and distinctions for his writing, including the Order of Merit – bestowed by King George VI – and the Nobel Prize for Literature (1948) and a posthumous Tony Award for CATS (1983).

His writing was influenced by the different cultures he grew up with, the long years he spent studying at different universities (in France and Germany) and the political and social changes he experienced, such as the First World War.

Eliot had a lifelong affection for cats, often sending letters and poems about his own cat to his godson, Tom Faber and making up unusual or outlandish names for cats for friends – and complete strangers!

Eliot was writing of cats during a time when cats were owned to be useful – to keep down mice – as much as pets. It was a time when a different class system existed and when the pace of life was very different to the early 21st Century.

Practical Cats was originally going to include poems about consequential dogs.

His cat poems were mainly set in London, but one that we would not recognise, a London of theatre, gentlemen’s clubs and public houses, telling of a bygone age with nostalgia and fondness. Gus the theatre cat mentions Henry Irving, a great actor in the Victorian era, Skimbleshanks travels on steam trains and Mungojerrie and Rumpelteaser live in a house with a cook and other servants to attend to their owners.

Practical Cats was originally going to include poems about consequential dogs as well and ‘Mr Eliot’s Book of Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats’ was advertised in Faber & Faber’s 1936 Spring catalogue. Eliot felt, however, that it would be “impolite to wrap cats up with dogs” and the book became only about cats. The reason the book was eventually titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, is that Possum was Eliot’s alias amongst his friends.

Most of the poems were written between 1936 and 1938. Some poems Eliot wrote with music in mind (The Marching Song of the Pollicle Dogs was written to the tune of ‘The Elliots of Minto’). Grizabella, the glamour cat remained incomplete and unpublished as Eliot felt it was becoming too sad for his intended youthful audience.

Eliot died in London in January 1965. A memorial to the late author stands in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats poems today are recognised as classics, and have been translated into many other languages. Macavity, the mystery cat was selected as number 66 in a BBC poll of the Nation’s favourite poem in 1995, and the popularity of the musical CATS has sustained the worldwide interest in the original poems.