Included among the poems of Thomas Gray which Blake illustrated for Ann Flaxman, wife of Blake's friend and fellow artist, John Flaxman, was one entitled Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat. Gray had written his poem for the amusement of the friends of Sir Horace Walpole whose cat Selina had drowned in a container for goldfish. The topic would seem unpromising material for either a poem by Gray, illustrations by Blake, or a post to this blog.
Gray turned the cat's misfortune into an opportunity to comment on the danger to which a woman may fall prey by pursuing 'glitter' which was not 'gold'. Gray's juxtaposition of the fate of the cat and the woman gave Blake the chance to include additional layers of meaning. The situation of humankind and the possibility of redemption are given pictorial representation in Blake's series of six images.
In his book of illustrations Blake gives an intimation that nothing will be what it seems on the initial page for the poem. The lines from Gray which Blake illustrates on the title page are:
1. "Midst the tide Two Angel forms were seen to glide"
Selina is a cross between a cat a woman; she wears a scarf and a corset and reaches with a human hand although she is a cat stalking her prey. The fish are a strange combination of human, demonic and aquatic creatures. The body of water Blake pictures is definitely not a fishbowl; its wide expanse suggests the 'sea of time and space.' The fish-people appear to luring the cat-person into the depths of their watery world.
In Blake's second image which serves as an index to the lines of the poem referenced in the six illustrations, he shifts his emphasis. This page is associated with:
2. "Demurest of the Tabby kind"
Faithful to the line of poetry Blake shows a natural looking cat and natural looking fish. However, present here as well are forces of the natural world through which imagination makes an appearance. Perched on the backs of the three animals are genii.
Inscriptions, List of Designs for Poems by Mr Gray (1790), (E 676)
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Design. 1. "Midst the tide Two Angel forms were seen to glide" 2. "Demurest of the Tabby kind" 3. "The pensive Selima Her Ears of Jet & Emrald Eyes She saw & purr'd applause" 4. "Still had she gazd but midst the tide Two Angel forms were seen to glide. The hapless nymph with wonder saw A Whisker first & then a Claw &c" 5. "Malignant Fate sat by & smild The slippery verge her feet beguild She tumbled headlong in" 6. "Nine times emerging from the flood "She mew'd to every watry God"
Thomas Gray's poem Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat with lines Blake illustrated in bold:
1 "'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
1 "'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
2 Where China's gayest art had dyed
3 The azure flowers, that blow;
4 Demurest of the tabby kind,
5 The pensive Selima reclined,
6 Gazed on the lake below.
7 Her conscious tail her joy declared;
8 The fair round face, the snowy beard,
9 The velvet of her paws,
10 Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
11 Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
12 She saw; and purred applause.
13 Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide
14 Two angel forms were seen to glide,
15 The genii of the stream:
16 Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
17 Through richest purple to the view
18 Betrayed a golden gleam.
19 The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
20 A whisker first and then a claw,
21 With many an ardent wish,
22 She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
23 What female heart can gold despise?
24 What cat's averse to fish?25 Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
26 Again she stretched, again she bent,
27 Nor knew the gulf between.
28 (Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
29 The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
30 She tumbled headlong in.
31 Eight times emerging from the flood
32 She mewed to every watery god,
33 Some speedy aid to send.
34 No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred:
35 Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
36 A favourite has no friend!
37 From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
38 Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved,
39 And be with caution bold.
40 Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
41 And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
42 Nor all that glisters gold."
The six illustrations are included in Milton Klonsky's book William Blake, The Seer and His Visions. Because Klonsky had an intense interest in Blake's visionary abilities, he was able to use these images to shed light on Blake's perchant for transforming the mundane into the profound.
"To Blake the allegory implicit in the poem was irresistible catnip, enabling him to employ fully his satirical genius as an illustrator and, in addition, to point a transcendent moral of his own. What Gray intended as metaphorical, Blake, with his 'fourfold vision,' makes literal, and vice versa, in a contrapuntal, playful irony."