Cats & Old Possum

May 11: The musical Cats opened on this day in 1981 in London, for record-setting eleven-year run. T. S. Eliot's original idea, as announced in 1936 by publishers Faber and Faber, was for a book of both dogs and cats, to be titled "Mr. Eliot's Book of Pollicle [poor little] Dogs and Jellicle [dear little] Cats as Recited to Him by the Man in White Spats." The eventual title of the book, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), dropped the dogs and exchanged the formality of "Mr. Eliot" for a nickname given by Ezra Pound. Eliot sometimes signed his letters "Tom Possum," and he gave his real cats such names as Pettipaws, Wiscus, and George Pushdragon (this last being also the name Eliot used when entering crossword competitions). But as "The Naming of Cats" makes clear, all such efforts were doomed to fall short of some pussycat-Platonic ideal:

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

    The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

    Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

        His ineffable effable

        Effanineffable

Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

By all accounts, Eliot himself was as hard to figure. The following is from Edmund Wilson's letter to Louise Bogan dated this day in 1933: "He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or rather, self-invented character—speaking English with a most careful English accent as if it were a foreign language which he has learned extremely well." But Wilson noted that, after a few drinks, Eliot lost "the million snobberies, poses and prejudices which he thinks he has to cultivate." The other evidence that Eliot could let his hair down includes the practical jokes he played at work, his pen-pal relationship to Groucho Marx, a letter to Virginia Woolf saying he was coming over to show her the Chicken Strut, and this self-parodying poem in the style of Edward Lear:

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!

With his features of clerical cut,

And his brow so grim

And his mouth so prim

And his conversation, so nicely

Restricted to What Precisely

And If and Perhaps and But….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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