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At the first sight, and as far as the subject is concerned, the poem “Mort aux Chats” by Peter Porter is a prejudiced total enumeration of insults and accusations of cats, as generalization and no provision of any valid evidence are to be found. The narrator can clearly be distinguished from the poet, since the narrator’s words are satiric and his points exaggerated and ridiculous (“I blame my headache and my plants dying on to cats”). Creating a speaker, the poet makes the reader explore the ludicrousness and abstruseness of the thoughts expressed in the poem on his own.
While the narrator uses short phrases in the beginning (“Cats pollute the air”), towards the middle and the end his sentences expand to questions (“Why should they insist on their own language, who needs to purr to make his point?”) and exclamatory slogans against cats (“Death to all cats!”).
There is a lot of evidence of the poet wanting to display how propaganda works and what effects it has, as well as to illustrate the ridiculousness of the prejudiced, stereotyped behaviour and way of thinking of National Socialists, especially of those who were discriminating against and persecuting Jews in power in Germany between the First and the Second World War (“They stabbed us in the back last time.
”, “They don’t deserve a capital C”, “When I dream of God I see a Massacre of Cats”). However, this intellectual link is made use of to pursue another idea, namely that prejudice, even the everyday-life one, will lead to intolerance of minorities, racism, xenophobia and eventually genocide (“Death to all cats!”, “There will be no more cats”), which can be identified as the theme of the poem.
In my view, the first-person narrator can be interpreted ambiguously. On the one hand, he seems to be significantly obsessed with the doctrine of National Socialism, since he uses “facts” German anti-Semites used to quote to justify their behaviour and attitude, however odd, incorrect, unreasonable or grotesque they were. The quote of the stab-in-the-back legend “they stabbed us in the back last time” provides evidence of this, since great parts of Germany’s population were of the opinion that Germany had lost the First World War not for military and economic reasons, but because of defeatism and treason to the Fatherland. Moreover, the word “Jew” was no longer permitted to be written with capital letters, as suggested in the utterance “They don’t deserve a capital C except at the beginning of a sentence.” Furthermore, Jewish art and artists were considered “degenerated”, which the narrator’s words “There have never been any great artists who were cats” imply.
In addition, German National Socialists dreamt of “The Rule of (them) [..[ (that) should last a thousand years!”. The act of killing cats, or, as in this case, Jews, is also of religious significance to the narrator, moreover, it is almost a sacred calling to him (“When I dream of God, I see a Massacre of Cats”). Anti-Judaists state that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus Christ and that they have committed deicide, which is responsible for hatred and prejudice against Jews. The narrator could share their prejudice and therefore their hatred. Furthermore, the speaker seems to be sure of the death of cats, as he says: “There will be no more cats.”, just in the opening line, as if he was sure about it and as if their extermination was inevitable.
He then goes on enumerating for what reasons he thinks cats must be eradicated. For this reason, he must have formed his opinion about cats beforehand, now wanting to convince the recipient, to bias him and his opinion. Hence, he uses methods that have been used for the purpose of propaganda, which is a specific type of message presentation, aimed at changing people’s understanding through deception and confusion, rather than persuasion and understanding, in Nazi Germany. The truly aggressive, sharp and violent title, “Mort aux Chats”, considering its meaning, gains a sense of sophistication and scholarliness through its translation into French, it moreover is euphemistic, since it makes a brutal slogan, an incitement to kill sound less immoral and cruel. Also, it is surrounded by a revolutionary flair, a sense of a great change in, an improvement of conditions. The influence and impact on the reader is furthermore increased through the imperative.
Another example that supports the impression of propaganda is the anapher of the word “cats” in four of five successive lines, that is like pointing one’s finger at them, showing that they are guilty, insulting them not only with words but also with the help of repetition, that keeps the focus and the attention of the reader on them. In the whole poem, the word “cats” is repeated 13 times in fact. Using sharp, short sentences (“Cats spread infections”, “Cats pollute the air”), the narrator increases the urgency of his speech. As he goes on, he uses questions (“Why should they insist on their own language and religion, who needs to purr to make his point?”) and emphases (“Death to all cats! The Rule of Dogs shall last a thousand years!”) designed to move the reader and bias him in favour of the narrator. When saying: “I blame my headache and my plants dying on to cats. Our district is full of them, property values are falling.”, the narrator scapegoats the cats, assigning blame to them although they are not responsible, thus distracting attention from the need to fix the problem for which blame is being assigned. Although the ridiculousness of his blaming of the cats is obvious to the reader and hence ineffective, it is a method used in propaganda.
On the other hand, it can be argued that this allusion to National Socialism and discrimination against the Jews serves a higher purpose, namely to practise social criticism and suggest that bias and prejudice will inevitably lead to racism and genocide, reinforced by bringing to mind all the cruelties associated with the persecution of Jews, that emerged from being prejudiced and intolerant. Evidence for this is provided when it says: “Perhaps they are all right in their own country but their traditions are alien to ours.” and “Our district is full of them, property values are falling.”, which can be heard frequently amongst the population and, although it does not indicate a particularly radical opinion, it can develop and accumulate, especially when supported by a radical government’s propaganda, to a radical position. If there is no prejudice beforehand, no racism can developed. Hence, prejudice is always the first step towards more violent views. Therefore, one should examine their thoughts and not generalize or accept information stated fact without proving it.
The poem consists of one 36-lined stanza showing free verse, which creates a prosaic feel throughout the poem. The irregularity of free verse adds to the oddness, satire and absurdness of the narrator’s statements, such as “I blame my headache and my plants dying on to cats.”. Predominantly, the phrases finish with stressed syllables, though, which underlines the idea of different prejudiced, unexamined statements just being added without providing proof of it or an explanation, an example or a qualification, ending abruptly.
The tone in the poem changes from the beginning to the end. At first the narrator uses short, clear sentences and sounds rational as well as not emotionally engaged (“Cats spread infections”). As the poem goes on, the narrator uses longer sentences (“Perhaps they are all right in their own country but their traditions are alien to ours”), questions (“Why should they insist on their own language and religion, who needs to purr to make his point?”) and exclamations (“Death to all cats!”), as he becomes more and more obsessed, passionate and vehement. His own harangue has made him that aggressive and violent that he wishes “Death to all cats!”.
Throughout the whole poem, the relationship between “cats”, and “dogs” is used as an extended metaphor, combined with a personification in some parts (“Why should they insist on their own language and religion”). Although frequently “cats” seem to represent Jews, as in “They don’t deserve a capital C”, for instance, more generally speaking they correspond to a minority the majority has prejudice against and directs all anger and blame on. “Cats” therefore perform the role of scapegoats. The use of animals instead of human beings makes the ridiculousness of the narrator’s ideas even more apparent. In the poem, the absence of a wide range of stylistic device underlines its prosaicity.
To sum up, Porter’s concern here is to convey that prejudice and intolerance is the source of racism and may eventually lead to genocide. Therefore, thoughts have to be examined and not everything believed straightaway without having any proof of it. Furthermore, the danger of prejudice is displayed in the poem , as well as society is criticized for its tendency to accept prejudice.
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