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.
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)