The American edition of T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a whimsical collection of 14 poems about cats written published in 1939. The American edition was published just a month after the British one.
Who is Old Possum?
‘Possum’ was the affectionate nickname given to Eliot by Ezra Pound, a fellow expatriate American poet whom he met in London. Pound chose it because of the Possum’s habit of feigning death in order to survive. The critic Jeffrey M. Perl suggests that Eliot’s ‘staid demeanour was an act’. This volume of poems written for children shows a lighter side of Eliot’s personality.
The cover of the 1939 edition, displayed here, contains a drawing by Eliot himself. The illustration is generally presumed to be a comical self-portrait! Eliot is the figure who is very formally dressed, extending a ladder to a clowder of cats. What lies beyond that wall? What mischief are they up to? The poetry collection lets us see Eliot’s imagined lives of a set of feline friends. From the rebellious Rum Tum Tugger, to the one-eyed barge dwelling Growltiger and Mr Mistoffelees ‘the conjuring cat’, Eliot’s characters have had more adventures than we could imagine!
What is shown here?
The poems are all written in rhyming couplets. They are partly inspired by the English tradition of nonsense poetry and the work of Edward Lear, whom Eliot admired. This extract corresponds to one of the best-known poems in the collection about the master criminal Macavity. ‘Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity/ He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity’.
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- Full title:
- Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (First American edition.)
- 1939, New York, US
- Harcourt, Brace & Co.
- Illustration / Book / Image
- T S Eliot, Robert Josephy
- Usage terms
T S Eliot (front cover illustration and text): © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Robert Josephy (design): © Estate of Robert Josephy. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- Fantasy and fairy tale, Literature 1900–1950
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.
- Article by:
- Morag Styles
- Go deeper, Poetry, nursery rhymes and wordplay
Nursery rhymes, ditties and songs – rhymes and poetry have a way of sticking in your head! What makes them so memorable? And how do you write a good one yourself?
- Article by:
- Poetry, nursery rhymes and wordplay
Explore nursery rhymes, nonsense and children’s poetry including works by Edward Lear, James Berry, Grace Nichols and John Agard.