Wednesday 4 March 2009

An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson's Favourite Cat

During a browse in a local bookshop this weekend we found a pamphlet of the following poem by Percival Stockdale, which I snapped up for the bargain price of 50p. It adds nicely to my recent post about Hodge, although the title is misleading - we know from Boswell's Life that Johnson 'had cats that he liked better' than Hodge (there was Lily, for a start, a 'white kitling' who was 'very well behaved').

Percival Stockdale published the Elegy in 1778, and then again in his collected poetical works in 1810, when he gave it the date 1764, though there has been some dispute over this because Hodge doesn't seems to have died until later (Mrs Thrale seems to have known the cat, though she didn't meet Johnson until 1765). We know from Stockdale's poem that Hodge was black, however, because he speaks of the cat's 'sable fur'.

My copy of the poem is a commemorative reprint for the unveiling of the statue of Hodge in Gough Square, London, on September 24th 1997.

An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson's Favourite Cat

Let not the honest muse disdain
For Hodge to wake the plaintive strain.
Shall poets prostitute their lays
In offering venal Statesmen praise;
By them shall flowers Parnassian bloom
Around the tyrant's gaudy tomb;
And shall not Hodge's memory claim
Of innocence the candid fame;
Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene'er he stroaked his sable furr?
The general conduct if we trace
Of our articulating race,
Hodge's, example we shall find
A keen reproof of human kind.
He lived in town, yet ne'er got drunk,
Nor spent one farthing on a punk;
He never filched a single groat,
Nor bilked a taylor of a coat;
His garb when first he drew his breath
His dress through life, his shroud in death.
Of human speech to have the power,
To move on two legs, not on four;
To view with unobstructed eye
The verdant field, the azure sky
Favoured by luxury to wear
The velvet gown, the golden glare -
--If honour from these gifts we claim,
Chartres had too severe a fame.
But wouldst though, son of Adam, learn
Praise from thy noblest powers to earn;
Dost thou, with generous pride aspire
Thy nature's glory to acquire?
Then in thy life exert the man,
With moral deed adorn the span;
Let virtue in they bosom lodge;
Or wish thou hadst been born a Hodge.

Top: My maquette of Hodge's statue; the original was made by Jon and Lynn Bickley at their studio in Norfolk.

Above: Boris during the recent energy crisis.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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Nicola J Watson said...

Researching a paper to give to the Johnson society of London this week, and working on the statue of Hodge the cat, I came across your very helpful article and the photo of your enviable maquette -- so thank you!

Unknown said...

No problem, Nicola, glad it was a help - your paper sounds very interesting!

andrew fitzherbert said...

Boswell disliked cats, as shown by his diary. Hodge, who has got so much attention and even a statue,was not even his "best Cat" though still a very good cat. Read Boswell's conversation with Voltaire, who liked cats and criticised Boswell's dislike of them, Read the new book on John Rich the stage owner, whom the fraudulent "Memoirs of Peg Woffington" (written by a pornographer after her death) claims Mr Rich had 27 cats, there's later paintings of that imaginary scene. Cardinal Woolsey never owned a cat or had anything to do with them, but he visited Archbishop Laud who had lots of cats and John Aubrey also conformed that Archbishop Laud was a notable cat lover. Notice that Johnson Rich and Laud were all male and all, apparently fond of Cats
Andrew Fitzherbert ( not currently a Cat owner, alas)

Judith Bingham said...

Small point, it was Rousseau, not Voltaire with whom Boswell discussed cats. From Boswell's diary entry, it sounds like he was allergic to cats.