A note from the original production programme by Valerie Eliot, widow of T S Eliot
In an early poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, T S Eliot likened the yellow fog of St Louis to a cat -
- “That rubs its back upon the window-pane,
- The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
- Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
- Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
- Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
- Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
- And seeing that it was a soft October night,
- Curled once about the house, and fell asleep…”
There are other references to cats in his work, but it was to his Godchildren, particularly Tom Faber and Alison Tandy in the ‘Thirties, that he first revealed himself as Old Possum.
Writing to Tom in January 1931 he described and drew his Lilliecat called Jellyorum whose “one idea is to be USEFUL …and yet is so little and small that it can sit on my ear! …I would tell you about our Cus Cus…except that I can’t Draw Dogs so well as Cats, Yet; but I mean to…”. When tom was four TSE suggested that all Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats should be
- INVITED to come
- With a Flute & a Fife & a Fiddle & Drum
- With a Fiddle, a Fife & a Drum & a Tabor
- To the Birthday Party of THOMAS ERLE FABER!”
Then there was “a very Grand Cat…a Persian Prince and it is Blue because it has Blue Blood, and its name was MIRLA MURAD ALI BEG but I said that was too Big a Name for such a Small Flat, so its name is WISKUSCAT. But it is sometimes called THE MUSICAL BOX because it makes a noise like singing and sometimes COCKALORUM because it Looks like one. (Have you ever seen a Cockalorum? Neither have I).” In April 1932 Tom learnt that “the Porpentine cat has been in bed with Ear Ache so the Pollicle Dog stopped At Home to Amuse it by making Cat’s Cradles”. Both children were sent ‘The Naming of Cats ’ in January 1936.
TSE was always inventing suitable cat names, as he was often asked for them by friends and strangers. I remember ‘Noilly Prat’ (an elegant cat); ‘Carbuckety ’ (a knock-about cat); ‘Tantomile ’ (a witch’s cat); he also liked ‘Pouncival’ with its Morte d’Arthur flavour, and ‘Sillabub ’, a mixture of silly and Beelzebub. Alison received “the late poem I have written: ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’” in October 1936. A year later TSE wrote “Some time ago I mentioned in a letter that I was meaning to write a poem about TWO cats, named Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer – and here it is. You may not like it because those two Cats have turned out to be even worse that I expected.” On Ash Wednesday 1938 he told her “I am trying to do a poem about a Railway Train Cat and if I can do it I will send it to you in due course.” ‘Skimbleshanks’ followed.
Although Faber & Faber announced ‘Mr Eliot’s book of Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats As Recited to Him by the Man in White Spats’ in their 1936 Spring catalogue, TSE had run into difficulties over his general approach. “The idea of the volume was to have different poems on appropriate subjects…recited by the Man in White Spats …At the end they all go up in a balloon,
- “Up up up past the Russell Hotel,
- Up up up to the Heaviside Layer.”
Three more years, as his publisher put it, brought “a growing perception that it would be impolite to wrap cats up with dogs” and the realisation that the book would be exclusively feline. Ralph Hodgson, the poet who bred bull-terriers, had hope to illustrate it but at the crucial period he was house-hunting in America. He felt that “the fun of doing it – or attempting it – is the thing, and that is only possible with my feet up on the mantlepiece, as the saying is.”
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was published on 5 October 1939 in an edition of 3005 copies at 3/6d (17½p) with TSE’s drawings on the front cover and the dustwrapper. He was nervous about its reception. His verse play The Family Reunion has appeared in March and The Idea of a Christian Society was due in three weeks. “It is intended for a NEW public” he informed Geoffrey Faber, “but I am afraid cannot dispense with the old one.” He need not have worried. “Cats are giving general satisfaction” the Sales Manager reported shortly afterwards. Today they have become a minor classic and are to be found in Danish, German, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, Hungarian and Polish.
The Marching Song of the Pollicle Dogs’ and ‘Billy M’Caw: The Remarkable Parrot’ appeared in The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross in 1939; ‘Grizabella: the Glamour Cat’ is an unpublished fragment of which only the last eight lines were written as TSE thought her history too sad for children.
PS Whenever he was unwell or could not sleep, TSE would recite the verses under his breath.