Gosse's Gossip - CATS

CATS

 

 

LES CHATS. A Rotterdam, chez Jean Daniel Beman, MDCCXXVIII.

            An accomplished lady of my acquaintance tells me that she is preparing an anthology of the cat. This announcement has reminded me of one of the oddest and most entertaining volumes in my library. People who collect prints of the eighteenth century know an engraving which represents a tom-cat, rampant, holding up an oval portrait of a gentleman and standing, in order to do so, on a volume. The volume is Les Chats, the book before us, and the portrait is that of the author, the amiable and amusing Augustin Paradis de Moncrif. He was the son of English, or more probably of Scotch parents settled in Paris, where he was born in 1687. All we know of his earlier years is to be found in a single sparkling page of d'Alembert, who makes Moncrif float out of obscurity like the most elegant of iridescent bubbles. He was handsome and seductive, turned a copy of verses with the best of gentlemen, but was particularly distinguished by the art with which he purveyed little dramas for the amateur stage, then so much in fashion in France. Somebody said of him, when he was famous as the laureate of the cats, that he had risen in life by never scratching, by always having velvet paws, and by never putting up his back, even when he was startled. Voltaire called him "my very dear Sylph," and he was the ideal of all that was noiseless, graceful, good-humoured, and well-bred. He slipped unobtrusively into the French Academy, and lived to be eighty-three, dying at last, like Anacreon, in the midst of music and dances and fair nymphs of the Opera, affecting to be a sad old rogue to the very last.

            This book on Cats, the only one by which he is now remembered, was the sole production of his lifetime which cost him any annoyance. He was forty years of age when it appeared, and the subject was considered a little frivolous, even for such a petit conteur as Moncrif. People continued to tease him about it, and the only rough thing he ever did was the result of one such twitting. The poet Roy made an epigram about "cats" and "rats," in execrable taste, no doubt; this stung our Sylph to such an excess that he waited outside the Palais Royal and beat Roy with a stick when he came out. The poet was, perhaps, not much hurt; at all events, he had the presence of mind to retort, "Patte de velours, patte de velours, Minon-minet!" It was six years after this that Moncrif was elected into the French Academy, and then the shower of epigrams broke out again. He wished to be made historiographer; "Oh, nonsense," the wits cried, "he must mean historiogriffe" and they invited him, on nights when the Academy met, to climb on to the roof and miau from the chimneypots. He had the weakness to apologise for his charming book, and to withdraw it from circulation. His pastoral tales and heroic ballets, his Zélindors and Zéloïdes and Erosines, which to us seem utterly vapid and frivolous, never gave him a moment's uneasiness. His crumpled rose-leaf was the book by which his name lives in literature.

            The book of cats is written in the form of eleven letters to Madame la Marquise de B––. The anonymous author represents himself as too much excited to sleep, after an evening spent in a fashionable house, where the company was abusing cats. He was unsupported; where was the Marquise, who would have brought a thousand arguments to his assistance, founded on her own experience of virtuous pussies? Instead of going to bed he will sit up and indite the panegyric of the feline race. He is still sore at the prejudice and injustice of the people he has just left. It culminated in the conduct of a lady who declared that cats were poison, and who, "when pussy appeared in the room, had the presence of mind to faint." These people had rallied him on the absurdity of his enthusiasm; but, as he says, the Marquise well knows, "how many women have a passion for cats, and how many men are women in this respect."

            So he starts away on his dissertation, with all its elegant pedantry, its paradoxical wit, its genuine touches of observation and its constant sparkle of anecdote. He is troubled to account for the existence of the cat. An Ottoman legend relates that when the animals were in the Ark, Noah gave the lion a great box on the ear, which made him sneeze, and produce a cat out his nose. But the author questions this origin, and is more inclined to agree with a Turkish Minister of Religion, sometime Ambassador to France, that the ape, "weary of a sedentary life" in the Ark, paid his attentions to a very agreeable young lioness, whose infidelities resulted in the birth of a Tom-cat and a Puss-cat, and that these, combining the qualities of their parents, spread through the Ark un esprit de coquetterie–which lasted during the whole of the sojourn there. Moncrif has no difficulty in showing that the East has always been devoted to cats, and he tells the story of Mahomet, who, being consulted one day on a point of piety, preferred to cut off his sleeve, on which his favourite pussy was asleep, rather than wake her violently by rising.

            From the French poets, Moncrif collects a good many curious tributes to the "harmless, necessary cat." I am seized with an ambition to put some fragments of these into English verse. Most of them are highly complimentary. It is true that Ronsard was one of those who could not appreciate a "matou." He sang or said:

 

There is no man now living anywhere
  Who hates cats with a deeper hate than I;
I hate their eyes, their heads, the way they stare,
  And when I see one come, I turn and fly.

            But among the précieuses of the seventeenth century there was much more appreciation. Mme. Deshoulières wrote a whole series of songs and couplets about her cat, Grisette. In a letter to her husband, referring to the attentions she herself receives from admirers, she adds:

 

Deshoulières cares not for the smart
  Her bright eyes cause, disdainful hussy,
But, like a mouse, her idle heart
  Is captured by a pussy.

            Much better than these is the sonnet on the cat of the Duchess of Lesdiguières, with its admirable line:

 

Chatte pour tout le monde, et pour les chats tigresse.

            A fugitive epistle by Scarron, delightfully turned, is too long to be quoted here, nor can I pause to cite the rondeau which the Duchess of Maine addressed to her favourite. But she supplemented it as follows:

 

My pretty puss, my solace and delight,
To celebrate thy loveliness aright
I ought to call to life the bard who sung
Of Lesbia's sparrow with so sweet a tongue;
But 'tis in vain to summon here to me
So famous a dead personage as he,
And you must take contentedly to-day
This poor rondeau that Cupid wafts your way.

            When this cat died the Duchess was too much affected to write its epitaph herself, and accordingly it was done for her, in the following style, by La Mothe le Vayer, the author of the Dialogues:

 

Puss passer-by, within this simple tomb
  Lies one whose life fell Atropos hath shred;
The happiest cat on earth hath heard her doom,
  And sleeps for ever in a marble bed.
Alas! what long delicious days I've seen!
  O cats of Egypt, my illustrious sires,
You who on altars, bound with garlands green,
  Have melted hearts, and kindled fond desires,–
Hymns in your praise were paid, and offerings too,
  But I'm not jealous of those rights divine.
Since Ludovisa loved me, close and true,
  Your ancient glory was less proud than mine.
To live a simple pussy by her side
Was nobler far than to be deified.

            To these and other tributes Moncrif adds idyls and romances of his own, while regretting that it never occurred to Theocritus to write a bergerie de chats. He tells stories of blameless pussies beloved by Fontanelle and La Fontaine, and quotes Marot in praise of "the green-eyed Venus." But he tears himself away at last from all these historical reminiscences, and in his eleventh letter he deals with cats as they are. We hasten as lightly as possible over a story of the disinterestedness of a feline Heloise, which is too pathetic for a nineteenth-century ear. But we may repeat the touching anecdote of Bayle's friend, Mlle. Dupuy. This lady excelled to a surprising degree in playing the harp, and she attributed her excellence in this accomplishment to her cat, whose critical taste was only equalled by his close attention to Mlle. Dupuy's performance. She felt that she owed so much to this cat, under whose care her reputation for skill on the harp had become universal, that when she died she left him, in her will, one agreeable house in town and another in the country. To this bequest she added a revenue sufficient to supply all the requirements of a well-bred tom-cat, and at the same time she left pensions to certain persons whose duty it should be to wait upon him. Her ignoble family contested the will, and there was a long suit. Moncrif gives a handsome double-plate illustration of this incident. Mlle. Dupuy, sadly wasted by illness, is seen in bed, with her cat in her arms, dictating her will to the family lawyer in a periwig; her physician is also present.

            This leads me to speak of the illustrations to Les Chats, which greatly add to its value. They were engraved by Otten from original drawings by Coypel. In another edition the same drawings are engraved by Count Caylus. Some of them are of a charming absurdity. One, a double plate, represents a tragedy acted by cats on the roof of a fashionable house. The actors are tricked out in the most magnificent feathers and furbelows, but the audience consists of common cats. Cupid sits above, with his bow and fluttering wings. Another plate shows the mausoleum of the Duchess of Lesdiguières' cat, with a marble pussy of heroic size, upon a marble pillow, in a grove of poplars. Another is a medal to "Chat Noir premier, né en 1725," with the proud inscription, "Knowing to whom I belong, I am aware of my value." The profile within is that of as haughty a tom as ever shook out his whiskers in a lady's boudoir.

 

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