Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An Oxford Don Curses his Cat

‘On lute strings cat-eaten’

Are these the strings that poets feign

Have clear’d the Ayre, and calm’d the main?

Charm’d wolves, and from the mountain crests

Made forests dance with all their beasts?

Could these neglected shreds you see

Inspire a Lute of Ivory

And make it speak? Oh! Think then what

Hath been committed by my cat,

Who, in the silence of this night

Hath gnawn these cords, and marr’d them quite; 10

Leaving such reliques as may be

For frets, not for my lute, but me.

Puss, I will curse thee: Mayst thou dwell

With some dry hermit in a cell

Where Rat ne’re peeped, where mouse ne’re fed

And flies go supperless to bed

Or with some close-pared Brother, where

Thou’lt fast each Sabbath in the year,

Or else, prophane, be hang’d on Monday

For butchering a mouse on Sunday 20

Or mays’t thou tumble from some tower

And miss to light upon all four

Taking a fall that may untie

Eight of nine lives, and let them fly.

Or may the midnight embers singe

Thy dainty coat, or Jane beswinge

Thy hide, when she shall take thee biting

Her cheese clouts, or her house beshiting.

What, was there ne’re a rat or mouse

Nor buttery ope? Nought in the house 30

But harmless lutestrings could suffice

Thy paunch, and draw thy glaring eyes?

Did not thy conscious stomach find

Nature prophaned, that kind with kind

Should stanch his hunger? Think on that

Thou cannibal, and Cyclops cat.

For know, thou wretch, that every string

Is a cat-gut, which art did spin

Into a thread; and now suppose

Dunstan, that snuff’d the divel’s nose 40

Should bid these strings revive, as once

He did the calf, from naked bones,

Or I, to plague thee for thy sin

Should draw a circle, and begin

To conjure, for I am, look to’t

An Oxford scholar, and can doo’t:

Then with three sets of mops and mows

Seven of odd words, and motley shows

A thousand tricks, that may be taken

From Faustus, Lamb, or Friar Bacon 50

I should begin to call my strings

(My catlings, and my minikins)

And they, recalled, straight should fall

To mew, to purr, to caterwaul

From Puss’s belly. Sure, as death

Puss should be an Engastranith;

Puss should be sent for to the King

For a strange bird, or some rare thing,

Puss should be sought to far and near

As she some Cunning Woman were, 60

Puss should be carried up and down

From shire to shire, from town to town

Like to the camel, lean as hag,

The elephant, or apish nag

For a strange sight, Puss should be sung

In lousy ballads, midst the throng

At markets, with as good a grace

As Agincourt, or Chevy Chase

The Troy-sprung Briton would forgo

His pedigree he chaunteth so 70

And sing that Merlin – long deceased

Returned is in a nine-liv’d beast.

Thus Puss, thou seest what might betide thee -

But I forbear to hurt or chide thee

For maybe Puss was melancholy

And so to make her blithe and jolly

Finding these strings, she’d have a fit

Of mirth, nay, Puss, if that were it

Thus I revenge me, that as thou

Hast played on them, I’ve played on you 80

And as thy touch was nothing fine

So I’ve but scratched these notes of mine.

Thomas Master or Masters (1603-43), an
Oxford scholar associated with the literary circle of William Cartwright.

British Museum, Harley Ms 6917.

~ This playful poem deploys the classical sub-genre of dirae, curses, which had to be wittily apt to the subject of the curse. Donne’s Elegy IV, ‘The Perfume’ is an example. His cat having eaten the lute strings, Masters finally arrives at the idea of using magic to reanimate the cut-gut strings, and so causing his “cannibal, and Cyclops cat” to turn “Engastranith” (56), which is in the OED in the form ‘Engastromith’, an early word for a ventriloquist. After his outburst, Masters charmingly forgives Puss for her misdemeanor.

The Puritan hanging his cat on a Monday (19ff) for having profaned the Sabbath by catching a mouse the day before was a common anti-puritan joke of the time. I can’t find the story about St. Dunstan (40ff) reviving a calf from bones. Prior to his conversion, the Saint was supposed to have been a practitioner of black magic. That he tweaked the devil’s nose with his metal-working pincers when the devil tried to tempt him in the form of a young woman is in the Golden Legend. The Devil Tavern in London was opposite St Dunstan's Church, and was properly 'The Devil and St Dunstan';
gives fragment of a wall painting of this comic and popular legend.

There is a brief mention (61ff) of captive exotic animals then being shown around England: a scrawny camel and an elephant, while the ‘Apish nag’ may well be Banks’ performing horse. ‘Catlings’ and ‘minikins’ (52) are terms for the various thicknesses of lute strings.

(The image is a detail from Evaristo BASCHENIS, 'Still-life with Instruments', on the Web Gallery of Art)

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