Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jellicle Cats Are Black And White

As a kid I was a long term subscriber to Cricket magazine. It was a wonderful magazine full of real literature, but packaged for kids. Clifton Fadiman, the initial editor/publisher, assumed that talking down to children wasn't really necessary. In its pages I made my first acquaintance with Isaac Bashivas Singer, Lloyd Alexander, Langston Hughes, ee cummings, Carl Sandburg, Pamela Travers and many other brilliant writers.

At some point during our subscription, we purchased a recording from the magazine of some of its top pieces. Included among the gems on this disk was TS Eliot reading his own poem, Jellicle Cats. I loved the poem; soon I had it memorized and would recite it, even imitating his British accent. To hear him you'd never know he was born in St Louis, Missouri, just a few hours drive from where I live.

Never did it matter to me that I had no clue what "terpsichorean powers" were. I was in high school before I thought to look it up and learned about the muses, and this one muse that was particularly gracious to dancers. Not knowing the meaning really didn't stop me from loving the sounds and saying the words. And learning the meaning, though interesting, did not really add much to my enjoyment of the poem. "So," I thought, "it's just another reference to dancing. Goes with the whole poem then." Wow.

But it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I began to wonder what a "Jellicle Cat" might be. Looking it up and finding no cat of that breed, I came to the conclusion that Eliot had just made the word up. He can do that. I put the question away. It was years later when I was puzzling through some of the odd allusions in The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland that I hit upon what seems to me the likely answer.

The Wasteland is an obviously religious poem, although what religion it works from is less obvious. Journey Of The Maji, The Hollow Men, and The Four Quartets are also highly religious. So, as I thought about it, are many or most of his works. It was when I began to ponder Eliot's high-church anglo-catholic allegiance that it hit me: a Jellicle Cat must be an EVANgelical cat, or an evangelical dude. The word "Cat" was used in his day much as we use the word "dude" or "guy."

So the poem isn't really about cats at all. It's a good natured and more than slightly rude way of poking fun at his evangelical (or low church) friends. Ha! So, after twenty years of repeating the poem to myself just because I loved the sound of it, I finally had a clue what it meant. Fun! So I repeated it to myself with that new meaning in mind.

"Hmm," I thought to myself, "he thinks we're (because I then thought of myself as evangelical) black and white. Yep, he's right. We do think in pretty straight forward black and white categories." And, interestingly, although it's meant, I think, as a good natured put-down, I found that he had nailed the evangelical cat to the tree. Nearly every line contributes to the overall mocking tone of the poem.

And I love it now much more than before. Knowing the meaning of this word changed the whole poem, and changed it for the better.

Jellicle Cats come out to-night,
Jellicle Cats come one come all:
The Jellicle Moon is shining bright--
Jellicles come to the Jellicle Ball.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats are rather small;
Jellicle Cats are merry and bright,
And pleasant to hear when they caterwaul.
Jellicle Cats have cheerful faces,
Jellicle Cats have bright black eyes;
They like to practice their airs and graces
And wait for the Jellicle moon to rise.

Jellicle Cats develop slowly,
Jellicle Cats are not too big;
Jellicle Cats are roly-poly,
They know how to dance a gavotte and a jig.
Until the Jellicle Moon appears
They make their toilette and take their repose:
Jellicles wash behind their ears,
Jellicles dry between their toes.

Jellicle Cats are white and black,
Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
Jellicles jump like a jumping-jack,
Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
They're quiet enough in the morning hours,
They're quiet enough in the afternoon,
Reserving their terpsichorean powers
To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.

Jellicle Cats are black and white,
Jellicle Cats (as I said) are small;
If it happens to be a stormy night
They will practice a caper or two in the hall.
If it happens the sun is shining bright
You would say they had nothing to do at all:
They are resting and saving themselves to be right
For the Jellicle Moon and the Jellicle Ball.


Anonymous said...

That's a lovely description of how I also come to slowly, over the years, understand and grow in appreciation my liking of many things, and the poems of TS Eliot are high on the list.

Carly said...

Stumbled across this post looking for info on where I might find that Cricket tape - info that is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out - but wanted to chime in. From what I understand, "Jellicle" was a nonsense term that Eliot based on his niece's (?) childlike way of saying "dear little cats". That's not to say the allegory isn't there as well, although that makes me wonder what might be represented by the various other cat characters in that collection of poems...and whether Andrew Lloyd Webber had any ideas of that sort when he was adapting them.