“His coat's very shabby, he's thin as a rake,
And he suffers from palsy that makes his paw shake.
Yet he was, in his youth, quite the smartest of Cats--
But no longer a terror to mice and to rats.
For he isn't the Cat that he was in his prime;
Though his name was quite famous, he says, in its time.
And whenever he joins his friends at their club
(Which takes place at the back of the neighbouring pub)
He loves to regale them, if someone else pays,
With anecdotes drawn from his palmiest days.
For he once was a Star of the highest degree--
He has acted with Irving, he's acted with Tree.
And he likes to relate his success on the Halls,
Where the Gallery once gave him seven cat-calls.”—American-born British poet, essayist, and playwright T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)
For nearly the past four decades, theatergoers have also recognized these verses in a quite different context: as the lyrics to a song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. But I discovered it first in a far different source: the very fine Philip Larkin-edited anthology, The Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse.
The Eliot poems that I know best are about as funny as heart attacks: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “Four Quartets,” not to mention the verse drama Murder in the Cathedral. So I couldn’t be more excited to discover this distinct change of pace for him.
Well, somewhat different, anyway. It's not massively somber like so many other Eliot poems, but this certainly has an element of melancholy to it. And take a look at the face in the photo. Hasn't it seen better days? He's not even feared anymore!