Nov 5, 2009

YEATS’S “THE CAT AND MOON” AND THE NEW CRITICISM, PART 2



First, let’s talk about the music in “The Cat and the Moon,” the rhythms produced by its meter. Most of the metric feet here are quite audibly iambic: “The CAT went HERE and THERE,” or “The CREEPing CAT looked UP.” But several anapestic feet find their way into the dominantly iambic music. The cat’s very name begins with an anapest: (min-a-LOO-she: short, short, long—that is, two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable).

Over the course of one line or several, anapests are often considered a waltzing rhythm (dah dah BOOM). Here they are only scattered, but if we add to them the “loudness” of the iambs and the shortness of the lines—which means we hear the simple rhymes rather often—the poem develops quite a musical quality.

To my ear and mind, these sounds are prominent enough to echo a children’s tale or maybe something like an adult nursery rhyme. The conspicuous music could even suggest a child speaker, but some of the more ominous lines make that unlikely. What child would say, “troubled his animal blood” or “The sacred moon overhead / Has taken a new phase”?

So what we have is the appearance of a simplicity in the poem’s simple story: a cat moves in a dance-like way in the moonlight. But other lines and images bring adult complexity into the perception of the scene. Here’s another example: “. . . the moon may learn, / Tired of that courtly fashion / A new dance turn.”

To the extent that the music feels innocent or childlike, there is irony. It might seem that we see sweet animal-waltzing, but there's also "troubled" animal blood, as a black cat wanders, wails, and tiptoes, changing the shape of his eyes—by volition?—under the "pure, cold light" of the moon. If we’re tempted to think of purity and light as forces of good, surely “cold” and “moon” make us uncertain, uneasy. If purity, light, and the moon are cold, do we still welcome them?

So, in spite of the music, the rhythm, the dancing, there's no comfort we can count on. The moon that’s called "sacred" is apparently weary with its “courtly fashion” and is ready to learn a new tune, perhaps something quite menacing.

Then, appropriately out of nowhere, the cat's new way of being in the world is announced as three consecutive stressed syllables—"new dance turn"—thud, thud, thud, a spondee plus an additional stress. That’s a jolt; the cute minuet we might have thought we heard has just been hit three times with a sledge hammer.

In cahoots with, or even in obedience to, the nocturnal, howling, waltzing, spooky-eyed, longing (horny?) cat, the moon enters a "new phase," and we have a cat-moon union. Minnaloushe might be "important and wise," but there’s no warm-fuzzy episode born in that wisdom. He’s also “alone”—as in lonely? or just solitary? or regal? And he may or may not be aware that his eyes are changing; he might be fairly out of control. If he’s “important” yet unsure of his vision, can we feel confident that any wisdom he has is a force of good? Maybe he’s just shrewd. Maybe he just looks wise. Cats do that, don’t they?

To emphasize the chill in this foreshadowing, the three or four iambic beats we've become accustomed to in each line shift at the poem’s end. We close abruptly with a shorter line and only two iambic stresses: "his CHANGE-ing EYES." The end is another boom, another nail in the coffin.

Can that portend anything good? Minnaloushe's eyes are linked by rhyme to the word "wise." Here, or when anything changes, are wisdom and comfort what we feel? Surely not. We wonder what’s next, and chances are, we’re not optimistic. Surely the final line and last notes of the poem are an ironic take on any notion we had of a nice kitty, benevolently wise and dancing in a children’s story.

Instead, the prancing animal harbinger and the "pure, cold" moon form a bond in and of darkness, the feline eyes lifted skyward for instructions from the night. Those are the closing sounds and images in the poem.

If all this heralds a new cycle in history, a new gyre, or if Yeats is psychotic for thinking so, well, bully for gyres, bully for Yeats, and bully for psychosis. May you wake with Druids standing over your bed and Byzantium sitting outside your window. I might be interested in reading your account of all that, but I’ll still see “The Cat and the Moon” as a poem that stands perfectly well on its own, with its haunting music, compelling imagery and dark prophecy.

6 comments:

altadenahiker said...

I'll read this a second time tomorrow. But I think the poem is in a minor key, and as in music, it doesn't allow you to feel a true finish, a true resolution.

BANJO52 said...

Wish I knew enough about music to respond with confidence, but I think I agree.

I've also heard that "a poem should end by landing on one foot, not two." Is that at all similar?

Paula said...

I can't read poetry I have to speak it. Why is that? And I was left with a feeling of incompleteness too. Well, cats may be habitual but they're not very predictable.

BANJO52 said...

Sounds as if you two, and maybe all three of us, are on the same page, or at least in the same book, though I think maybe I like the poem more than you do--maybe because it's not considered one of Yeats's major works, and I wonder if that's OK. Like students, maybe, I sometimes wonder if a writer or composer's major works become major because they're difficult enough to keep scholars busy. Immediately I think of Eliot's The Wasteland, but also some of Yeats's more exotic stuff. But I think most of the Yeats that's heralded deserves to be.

Paula, I think most poets still assume that poetry is meant to be read aloud. Maybe you're sensing that--and hearing the sounds in your head--as you read? Sounds like a good thing to me.

altadenahiker said...

The Wasteland would be major, with or without the scholars, with or without knowledge of the references. Now that's a poem in a major key, and although the last word is a whimper, it is said with the clash of cymbals. Or symbols.

What's your favorite Yeats? I quite like him, but hadn't read any for years.

Paula said...

Actually, I like the poem, especially after I read it aloud. And I don't mind the feeling of incompletion.

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