Philip Hess on his Poem “Good Breeding”

“The vote was taken at once, and it was agreed by an overwhelming majority that rats were comrades. There were only four dissentients, the three dogs and the cat, who was afterwards discovered to have voted on both sides.” —George Orwell, Animal Farm

Untitled.jpgI think that cats escaped our meddling ways,
The sculpturing to smash aggressive traits,
Our offer of a devil’s pact with scraps,
Promoting those who lost the will to kick
And stomp while being milked, rewarding with
Sweet handpicked grass the mangey critter of
The Asian steppe who barely could convey
A rick of hay or wood at first. Who else?
The layers. Quota’s but five eggs a week,
You’re in, this fellow here will keep you safe.

Cats: kept around and cultivated just
Because they made good pets and little else.
Fair mousers, sure, as ratters not a patch
On smallish feists who put their heart and teeth
Into the task, not bored, not curling up
Because they felt the time for that was now.
For what exactly do cats do? Sure, they’re
Well-groomed, good fur, good purr, but not much work.
Less needy than our other pals, they keep
A private council, sleep a lot, retired.

I’m guessing Cleopatra had some cats.
She also had a bunch of kids, I’m sure
They trailed those stiff-raised tails from palace room
To room, like cat-led children everywhere,
The cats a little disinclined to stop:
When will these youngsters ever learn the drill?
Perhaps she even called her cats
For Ptolemaic kith and kin,
Or just used favored sounds and names
Touched by the other tongues she knew.


As the memory of Soviet communism fades, Animal Farm becomes funnier and funnier and can now be read as a pure “fairy story,” which is how Orwell subtitled it. And the animals! Benjamin, the cynical donkey, who says things like “None of you has ever seen a dead donkey.” And Squealer the pig, the smooth-talking propagandist, who was said to be able to “turn black into white.”

And of course, Snowball, reassuring the farm’s birds that the maxim “four legs good, two legs bad” did not apply to them, that a wing should be regarded as a leg.

And especially Molly the mare, vain and considered stupid. Imagine her disappointment when she learns that the two things which matter most to her in the world, a lump of sugar and a pretty ribbon for her mane, will not be available after the Rebellion (revolution). Readers who don’t feel something for these animals must have something terribly wrong with them.

Other than rats and rabbits, the animals on Animal Farm are all domesticated, meaning we have created them in our image, so to speak. Most domestic species are now much bigger than their ancestors: to produce more milk, to carry heavier loads; according to my Joy of Cooking, today’s pig is longer in the loin and even has an extra rib (echoes of Adam and Eve).

But maybe not the cat if the theory is true, that cats never played a very important role around the farmstead, that if you had a problem with varmints (rats, raccoons, etc.), a small dog specifically bred for killing those animals would be a much better solution than a cat. In the U.S. those kinds of dogs were known as “feist” dogs, where we get the word “feisty”.

All those trailing consonants make “feists” a little tricky to sound out in a fast-moving line of iambic pentameter.

I considered using the Southern variant, “fice”, which is what Faulkner used in his novels, but finally felt it might be even more obscure than “feists”. (And then there’s the problem of the plural: if one dog is a fice, are two dogs fices? Or just fice, like mice?)

It’s undeniable that cats make good pets. Just watch how children respond to their presence, sometimes to the cats’ annoyance. And how self-reliant cats can be, compared, say, to dogs. Maybe cats were always this way and we haven’t altered their nature very much. Even vegans benefit from the breeding we forced on our domestic pals if they have pets or ride horses.

Cleopatra is interesting. The ancient Egyptians appear to have been kind of obsessed with cats. Cleopatra had several children, one with Julius Caesar, three with Mark Antony, and it’s hard to imagine them not having cats around the house. Cleopatra herself was the product of inbreeding; some of her direct ancestors were brother and sister.

Ethnically, Cleopatra was Macedonian, not Egyptian. Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and his descendants (the males were also named Ptolemy) had ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries by the time of Cleopatra VII. It’s said she was the first Ptolemy to speak Egyptian in addition to the family’s native Greek. She’s also said to have spoken eight other languages (from Wikipedia): “Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew (or Aramaic), Arabic, the Syrian language (perhaps Syriac), Median, Parthian, and Latin.”

And of course, many a cat has been named Cleo.

On word choices:

In the first stanza, “sculpturing”, “promoting”, “rewarding”, “convey” and “quota” should all suggest work, which is what some domestic animals were bred to do. The use of “retired” to describe cats might also suggest their general absence from work, similar to the cat in Animal Farm. I was also thinking of Thoreau’s frequent use of “retired” in its archaic sense of “secluded”, the way cats will sleep in hidden places (bushes, flowerbeds, etc.).

“Sure”, “fur” and “purr” in the second stanza try to summon the cat’s trademark sound. And “favored sounds”, “touched” and “tongues” in the third stanza could perhaps suggest a cat purring while grooming itself. The use of “other tongues she knew” is loaded, although not intentionally.

This refers obviously to the languages Cleopatra heard and understood other than the Greek of her relatives, but I suppose it could also be read as a reference to her lovers and the things they said to her.

Finally, although “kith and kin” is an ancient cliche, I felt compelled to use it since it sounds like a stretched out rendering of “kitten”, the stage at which a cat would be named. Sadly, it looks to be of German, not Greek, origin, but you can’t have everything.

About the Poet

Phil’s pseudonymous reviews of movies and other things appear occasionally on his website here. He lives in (to borrow a famous phrase from William Gass) “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”

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