Pets: Past, Present or Imaginary

Pets have a rich literary history, both as fictional ones and real animals belonging to writers. I thought I would focus on the latter.

Some literary figures kept exotic pets. The Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, these days, is more celebrated for his painting and his poetic reputation has been eclipsed by that of his sister, Christina. But he was a successful poet in his day.  And, as well as his artistic and poetic prowess he was known for his partiality for wombats. His first died quite soon after it arrived (according to the painter, Whistler, Rossetti’s wombats were brought to the table at dinner parties for brandy and cigars, which may have had something to do with their lack of longevity). |Rossetti commemorated his pet with his best known, but not his only, wombat poem.

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye
But when he was most sweet and fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!

(D.G. Rossetti 1869)

A century earlier, Samuel Johnson’s pet, Hodge was far from exotic. In fact he seems to have been an unremarkable cat. Which makes it the more amazing that he is commemorated by two poems, a statue and a passage in, perhaps, the most celebrated literary biography of all time. It is from that biography, James Boswell’s The Life of Samueel Johnson, that we find most of what we know about Hodge.

‘I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

Oysters were, at the time, a very cheap food and Johnson may have thought his servants would think it an indignity to be seen buying them. The statue of Hodge in Gough Square, London, by Jon Buckley, portrays him sitting on Johnson’s dictionary with oyster shells by his feet.

Percival Stockton was a campaigner against slavery and a friend of Johnson. He is not much remembered as a poet now, but I think his: An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat, is delightful.

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.

Percival Stockton

Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (January 29, 1835 – April 9, 1905) on the other hand, is still celebrated as the author of, What Katy Did (under the pen name Susan Coolidge.)

Hodge The Cat

Burly and big, his books among,
Good Samuel Johnson sat,
With frowning brows and wig askew,
His snuff-strewn waistcoat far from new;
So stern and menacing his air,
That neither Black Sam,
nor the maid
To knock or interrupt him dare;
Yet close beside him, unafraid,
Sat Hodge, the cat.

“This participle,” the Doctor wrote,
“The modern scholar cavils at,
But,” – even as he penned the word,
A soft, protesting note was heard;
The Doctor fumbled with his pen,
The dawning thought took wings and flew,
The sound repeated, come again,
It was a faint, reminding “Mew!”
From Hodge, the cat…

The Dictionary was laid down,
The Doctor tied his vast cravat,
And down the buzzing street he strode,
Taking an often-trodden road,
And halted at a well-known stall:
“Fishmonger,” spoke the Doctor gruff,
“Give me six oysters, that is all;
Hodge knows when he has had enough,
Hodge is my cat.”

Then home; puss dined and while in sleep
he chased a visionary rat,
His master sat him down again,
Rewrote his page, renibbed his pen;
Each “i” was dotted, each “t” was crossed,
He labored on for all to read,
Nor deemed that time was waste or lost
Spent in supplying the small need
Of Hodge, the cat.

The dear old Doctor! Fierce of mien,
Untidy, arbitrary, fat,
What gentle thought his name enfold!
So generous of his scanty gold.
So quick to love, so hot to scorn,
Kind to all sufferers under heaven,
A tend’rer despot ne’er was born;
His big heart held a corner, even
For Hodge, the cat.

Sarah Chauncy Woolsey (Susan Coolidge)

Hodge, looking towards Johnson’s house (now a museum)

7 thoughts on “Pets: Past, Present or Imaginary

  1. “His cat he calls her, yet she owns him not!” ( dialogue between 2 orcs talking about the relationship between Sauron (The Dark Lord) and Shelob (the Giant Spider) – JRR Tolkein – The Lord of the Rings

    Liked by 1 person

    • Um, not sure I would fancy, Shelob as a pet, Mike- but good reference!

      P.S. apologies for the delay in approving your comment. WordPress can be a bit arbritrary in deciding what needs holding for approval



  2. Pets

    Many people have pets
    Dogs and cats and rats

    We had a dog
    A border collie cross
    He was sensitive
    He could tell if you were sad
    When he would come and lick your face

    We took him out on long walks at weekends
    Otherwise he spent his time in the garden
    He had a kennel outside and a dog flap
    To go in the house when he wanted to

    Once we discovered that he was climbing out
    Over the gate when we were out at work
    Visiting the local primary school
    So we had to make the gate higher

    We took him camping with us in the holidays
    He liked travelling with us in the van
    We only had to think about packing and
    He would get in and sit on the front seat
    In case we forgot to take him

    We travelled in our Ford Transit caravanette
    Rex slept on the front passenger seat
    He leaned his head on the back
    Just waiting for us to move so
    He could jump over onto our bed
    And jump all over us in the mornings

    Later when we changed to a car
    And a small tent for sleeping
    He travelled in his basket in the boot
    Surrounded by all our camping gear

    As soon as he could smell the sea
    He would get very excited
    He would jump into the water
    And swim and swim

    Once when we were walking along a cliff edge
    He jumped into the sea from quite a height
    That’s it we thought, surely he must have broken his legs
    But no he just swam back to shore

    But eventually he grew old
    He lived for fifteen years
    He got arthritis in his back legs
    We had to carry him outside

    The vet suggested it would be kinder
    To put him to sleep
    I held his head as he gave him the injection
    Rex gently drifted off

    I was surprised to feel grief for a dog
    That night the tears rolled down my face



  3. PETS
    By Mairi Cable.

    I’ve had two cats as pets, Snowy and Topsy. Snowy came to us when Sarah was quite young at primary school, we got her from a lady from Barvas who was a support worker for Alzheimer’s. She came to the house with her and left her with me. I cuddled her and stroked for a good while, then I laid her down for some milk and bread, but she scurried under a sideboard we had at the time. I tried my best to get her out but no luck. She stayed there until Sarah came home from school at half past three. It did not take Sarah long to get her out from under there and from then on she was Sarah’s cat though I had to feed her and clean up after her. We got a litter tray and cat litter, cat food and anything else that was necessary. Sarah groomed her with a wire brush that I had got with a cosmetic set. I was giving her the cat pill until one week I lost my supply. After some time, without us realising it Snowy became pregnant and it was only when Sarah called me upstairs at teatime that I saw the first kitten there was a second to follow and that completed her family. Snowy was a white cat with ginger around her ears and tail. The kittens were similar, a male one with ginger patches and a female with brown and auburn patches. I was up to ‘hi do’ worrying about feeding them and looking after them though it was Snowy who did that. After eight weeks we advertised for two cats for good homes on my mother’s phone and there was one reply. A lady came with her son to see the kittens and delightfully took them away. When Sarah went to university Snowy missed her greatly but got used to spending more time with me. One thing I liked was when I was having a bag of crisps, she liked me to throw a few, one at a time, cheese and onion and plain but never salt and vinegar. She lived for about fifteen years. I came down one morning and she was lying by the living room door and had passed away. The RSPCA inspector took her away to bury her.
    Topsy was a tabby cat. I got her as a kitten too from Betty’s sister Joan’s cat’s litter. She was a lovely cat too, but she was my cat. Sarah had realised she was allergic to cats by then. After what happened to Snowy, we knew how to get Topsy her operation. We got a voucher from the Cat’s Protection League, so it didn’t cost much more than one of the cat pills. So, there were no kittens with Topsy. Betty complained about them doing their poos in her plant pots. I thought that would be good for the compost. Both cats were safety conscious on the road. Living on a busy road they couldn’t go out the road so spent their time round the back and side roads. Topsy had a tight tail but Snowy had one like a brush. After a while looking after Topsy became to much of a chore for me. She was doing loose motions on the floor if the litter tray wasn’t perfect. So, I got in touch with the Cat Protection League, and she was placed with a Doctor.


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