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The poet T S Eliot wrote a series of nonsense verse based on his friends' cats, first published in 1939 (and later adapted into the musical phenomenon Cats). Shown here is a selection of the letters Eliot wrote to the Tandy family, containing the original drafts of the poems. The letters were written between 1934 and 1937.
Geoffrey Tandy (1900–69) was a writer, broadcaster and scientist who worked at the Natural History Museum. On Christmas Day 1937, he read a version of Practical Cats on a BBC radio broadcast. The friendship developed to the point at which Eliot became friends with Tandy’s wife, Doris – known as Polly – and godparent to their daughter, Alison. The warmth and informality of their relationship is reflected in the fact that Eliot addresses Polly affectionately as ‘Pollytandy’ or ‘Pollitandy’. Here, he signs himself with variations on ‘Old Possum’: sometimes Tom Possum, or ‘TP’. Eliot had been given this nickname by his friend and poetic colleague Ezra Pound, as a comic comparison to the animal which pretends to be dead in order to escape predators.
Some of the letters – that Eliot sent on 6 January 1937, for example – are entirely in verse which plays with rhyme and punning to humorous effect. Other letters weave prose stories into their texture. The letters appear on the official notepaper of Faber or The Criterion, the magazine Eliot edited (Geoffrey Tandy was a contributor). This draws our attention to the fact that ‘playful’ Eliot is lightly riffing on the themes and methods of ‘serious’ Eliot. For example, the tone of confident judgements and classifications which characterises Eliot’s critical prose is parodied in lines such as ‘I have always maintained that a cat’s name should have at least 3 syllables, except in exceptional circumstances’, or
I must see your cat. So far in my experience there are chiefly 4 kinds of Cat the Old Gumbie Cat the Practical Cat the Porpentine Cat and the Big Bravo Cat; I suspect yours is a Bravo Cat by the looks of things.
For more T S Eliot content explore works published by Faber & Faber.
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Professor John Sutherland explores the origins and afterlife of T S Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats, the ‘cat poems’ first written to entertain Eliot’s godchildren that later became his best-selling collection and inspired a famous stage production.