Monday, November 4, 2013

NOVEMBER 4 = "CATS" Author Wins Nobel Prize

"I have a Gumbie Cat in mind.
Her name is Jennyanydots.
Her coat is of the tabby kind with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits beneath the stairs or on the steps or on the mat.
She sits and sits and sits and that's what makes a gumbie cat."

- from "Old Possums Book of Practical Cats", by T.S. Eliot.

On today's date, November 4 in 1948, T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for the exceptional contribution that he had made to the world of poetry in the 20'th Century. Eliot was a man of extraordinary literary gifts, and even though he did not consider himself to be a terribly prolific writer, his effect on the direction of poetic verse in the 20'th Century was profound. But it was as the author of the above quoted and pictured book of verses that his work came to the ears of the late 20'th Century reader, and Broadway Music lover (although I'm not at all certain that most people are aware of that fact), and it was almost how he came to MY eyes.

The Life and Work of T.S. Eliot

Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a prominent family. His grandfather, his father, and his mother were all leading citizens in the cultural and business world of St. Louis. Eliot took an undergraduate degree at Harvard, studied at the Sorbonne, returned to Harvard to learn Sanskrit, and then studied at Oxford. He became lifelong friends with fellow poet Ezra Pound and later moved permanently to England. In 1915, he married Vivian Haigh-Wood, but the marriage was unhappy, partly due to her mental instability, and partly because Eliot suspected that she had had an affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Writing privately in his sixties, Eliot confessed:

"I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of [Ezra] Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came 'The Waste Land'."

Eliot began working at Lloyd's Bank in 1917, writing reviews and essays on the side. He founded a critical quarterly, Criterion, and quietly developed a new style of poetry. His first major work, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", was published in 1917 and hailed as the invention of a new kind of poetry. His long, fragmented images and use of blank verse influenced nearly all future poets, as did his masterpiece "The Waste Land", published in 1922. While Eliot is best known for revolutionizing modern poetry, his literary criticism and plays were successful as well, his play, "the Cocktail Party" for example being produced on Broadway and winning the 1950 Tony Award for Best Play of the Year. Eliot had indeed become a British citizen though, having been granted that status in 1927. On January 10, 1957, Eliot at the age of 68 married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who was 32. In contrast to his first marriage, Eliot knew Fletcher well, as she had been his secretary at Faber since August 1949. But he had been a heavy smoker all of his life, and this eventually took him. Eliot died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965.

"Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats"

In 1930, Eliot published a book of light, almost child-like verses. Taking Ezra Pound's nickname for himself, Eliot titled the book "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" In 1954, the composer Alan Rawsthorne set six of the poems for speaker and orchestra, in a work entitled "Practical Cats". After Eliot's death, the book was adapted as the basis of the musical, "Cats", by Andrew Lloyd Webber, first produced in London's West End in 1981 and opening on Broadway the following year. "Cats" became the second longest-running show in Broadway history (running until 2000), and the fourth longest-running West End musical. It has been performed around the world many times and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

It was in this way, I think, that I became familiar with the work of Eliot. I was at the home of one of my high school friends, Glenn Pepple. I had been there with our mutual friend, the artist Jon Jay Muth, and we were both having a look at a few of Glenn's books. We ran across a collection of poems by this man, T.S. Eliot, of whom I had never heard before. Whether Glenn had purchased the book in reaction to the fame of "Cats", I don't know. But I found the Cat poems in the book and began reading some of them to Jay. I don't recall whether or not Jay was already familiar with them, but they were quite new to me. I was instantly captivated by these charming verses, and have remained so ever since (which is odd, since I have always been a dog owner). My favorite poem was always "Growltigers Last Stand". But the poems "Rum Tum Tugger" and "Jellicles" were also much enjoyed by me and the countless people to whom I've presented this fun collection as a gift over the years.  And of course there is "The Old Gumbie Cat":                                                                 

"I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard 

All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat;
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a 

Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teachs them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse--cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that's smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment
To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment.
So she's formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do
And she's even created a Beetles' Tattoo.

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears."

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by T.S. Eliot, London, 1939.

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