Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a book of comic verse by the American modernist poet T S Eliot.
The works contained are ‘nonsense’ poems in the tradition of Edward Lear. Though this seems surprising given the seriousness of the rest of Eliot’s output, The Waste Land (1922), for example, contains passages of nursery rhyme and popular song. At one level, Eliot has a purely formal interest in the possibilities for interesting experiments with metre and rhyme these exercises offer. Similarly, Eliot allows himself the luxury of punning and using language as a means of playing with deceptively serious themes, wearing literary sophistication more lightly than he usually does: ‘Mr Mistoffeles’ is a babyish, phonetic version of Mephistopheles, a devil from the Faust legend used by Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (first performed c. 1588).
In that sense, the poems of Practical Cats can be considered alongside ‘Five-Finger Exercises’ (1933), in which Eliot gently mocks himself:
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut …
Eliot began writing the Practical Cats poems around 1934–35, as presents for his godchildren. T E Faber, who is thanked in the book’s dedication Practical Cats, was the son of Godfrey Faber, who employed Eliot as literary editor at his publishing firm.
‘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 it points out that Eliot’s ‘staid demeanour was an act’.
The critic Sarah Bay-Cheng has suggested that these poems form a link between Eliot’s poetry and his plays, such as Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939) and The Cocktail Party (1949), through which he increasingly sought a broader audience. The plays had met with mixed critical reactions, as indeed have the poems of Practical Cats, chiefly at the hands of critics more used to reading Eliot in his mode of high seriousness.
In 1981 Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who had grown up with the book, adapted the poems into the stage musical Cats, which broke records for the longest-running musical on Broadway.