The two poems I am comparing; “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat” by Thomas Gray and “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns were both written in the eighteenth century, which makes it interesting to make a comparison of their content, style and techniques, to see how poems of the eighteenth century differ from each other. Both of the poems feature an animal as the main subject of the poem. In Gray’s poem he has a house cat as the main focus of the poem whilst Burns dedicates his poem to a field mouse. Both these animals come to an unfortunate end. The cat due to curiosity “tumbled headlong” into “a tub of gold fishes” This supports the well known phrase “curiosity killed the cat” In the poem it refers to the cat as actually loosing 9 lives:
“Eight times emerging from the flood She mew’d to ev’ry watry God”. No one arrives to save her: “No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr’d : Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heared”. The dolphin is included in the list of possible rescuers because it is a reference to the classical legend of the harpist, Arion, being saved by a dolphin which had been entranced by his music, much in the same way the cat wanted to be saved by someone who heard its meowing. In Burns’s poem the mouse unlike the cat does not actually die, but it is made clear that the prospects for the mouse are bleak due to its home being destroyed by the plough and the fact winter is coming and the mouse has no time to build another home for itself:
“Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble, But house or hald, To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble, An’craneuch cauld!” The poems are both basically about a particular ill-fated animal but each has a deeper meaning and message through anthropomorphism. The cat in Gray’s poem is given feminine characteristics: a “fair round face” illustrates the ideal image of an eighteenth century woman’s face. Gray also uses metaphors to describe the cat which also apply to a lady’s jewels and adornments:
“The velvet of her paws, Her coat, that with the tortoise vies, Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes.” In verse four the comparison of the cat to a woman is made even clearer: “She stretch’d in vain to reach the prize. What female heart can gold despise? What cat’s averse to fish?” It is clear here that Gray is illustrating how women are seduced by the desire for gold as cats are seduced by the desire for fish. The anthropomorphism continues in verses 5 and 7: “Presumptious maid” and “From hence you Beauties, undeceiv’d Know one false step is ne’er retrieved”. The last lines of the poem contain a moral: “Not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes And heedless hearts, is lawful prize; Nor all that glisters gold”.
Through the cat Gray created a cautionary tale specifically aimed at women. It’s a warning not to be tempted by what is not rightly theirs, and not to be seduced by glittering appearances because it may not be as good as it looks on the outside. Gray is very direct with his message of warning to women but he writes in a light-hearted way throughout. However, Burn’s poem is much more serious and sombre.
He uses anthropomorphism like Gray to get his message across through an animal, in this case the mouse is used to highlight the social and moral problems that he felt existed in both the public and in his own family – His father died after eighteen years of hard work as a farmer. After his father’s death they had little money, leaving them no choice but to sublease a farm in order to keep their home. These experiences were brought through in to his poem when the mouse had its home destroyed by the plough: