Old Possum’s Prophecy.
T.S Eliot published “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” in the first week of October 1939, a portentous moment in history. The timing of the publication could not have been any more fortuitous, as this nation steeled itself for War a light hearted book about cats was necessary for morale.
However Eliot was not traditionally known for his levity, most of his oeuvre focused upon themes of death and despair as evinced in his lengthy poem “The Waste Land”. This poem was published in 1922 but only after his friend Ezra Pound, a fellow American poet heavily edited his original manuscript.
Pound called Eliot “Old Possum” as a fond nickname which acknowledged his wise but lugubrious character. Modern audiences are perhaps more familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical interpretation “Cats” which brought Eliot`s verse to a wider readership.
The “Cats” musical is entertaining but belies the true meaning behind the original book, which contrary to popular opinion is not merely about cats as animals but are in fact archetypes. Each cat is a representation of a familiar behavioural or character trait that is almost unique to the species.
These include the sagacious father figure of Old Deutoronomy with his endless brood of kittens and the gluttonous Bustopher Jones, a corpulent feline with a taste for the finer things in life. Eliot had a reputation as a misanthrope but he adored cats and admired how they lived distinctly from humans. Humans are uniquely doomed as they are self absorbed and self important, often to the detriment of wider society. This became painfully apparent to him as the War raged across the world, seemingly at the behest of an egomaniac called Adolf Hitler.
By 1940 Eliot`s health was deteriorating and he feared that civilisation was close to destruction. In the midst of destruction he composed “Four Quartets”, meditations on the elements of life, but also profound eulogies to his English heritage. He was deeply afraid that England’s culture would be destroyed and sought valiantly to preserve it in verse.
Each poem is a kind of lamentation for England’s past. “Burnt Norton” is a manor house in the Cotswolds complete with its own rose garden. “East Coker” is a village in Somerset and the ancestral home of the Eliot family. “The Dry Salvages” is a metaphor for London under siege and the final poem “Little Gidding” refers to the Anglican community in Huntingdonshire.
Eliot was part of the modernist movement in literature by virtue of subverting poetic conventions. However he had a traditionalist outlook on life that often conflicted with the radical notions expressed by his peers. He clarified his position as “a Classicist in literature, a Royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion”. He was a prophetic voice, speaking the truth about a vanishing way of life.