To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

The tone of Keats’ poem is deliberately portentous and transforms the aged cat sitting on Keats’ lap and digging its claws into his knee into something much more adventurous. Keats may have been familiar with Thomas Gray’s mock-heroic Ode on the Death of a Favourite cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes, which has a similarly elevated tone.
The cat’s former power is suggested by ‘destroyed’ (line 3). It does not have claws but rather ‘talons’, like some mighty bird of prey. Like a warrior it has survived ‘frays’ with fish and mice. Keats imagines the cat as having been mauled by the fists of maids and even imagines it as a young knight entering the lists, proving its courage in some sort of tournament. 
However, the tone shifts at the end and Keats displays a finely judged sense of bathos in seeing the cat’s proving ground as merely a wall topped by shards of broken bottles.
The sonnet contains many instances of parody as well as elements of the mock heroic. The first line begins with the abrupt invocation ‘Cat!’ in the manner of a Miltonic sonnet and ends with the grand and esoteric word ‘climacteric’. There are other Miltonic features, such as the spreading of adjectives either side of the noun in ‘bright languid segments green’ (line 4).
Investigating language and tone of To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
  • Why does Keats create a tone that is far weightier than the light-hearted subject matter would suggest?
  • How does Keats create a sense of anti-climax at the end?
  • List all the examples of parody and mock-heroic that you can and comment on the effects they create.
  • Why would echoes of the poet John Milton be of particular significance for Keats?
  • How does the language suggest the contrast between the cat when young and now that it is old?

Structure and versification of To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

Although the poem is a piece of light-hearted whimsy, Keats shows his mastery of form and language. Keats utilises a formal structure: a Petrarchan sonnet, recognisable by the rhyme-scheme abba abba in the octave and cdc cdc in the sestet. The octet sees the cat in heroic terms; the sestet cuts it down to size, focusing on its ‘dainty’ wrists, its ‘wheezy asthma’, its nicked off tail, its mauling at the fists of ‘many a maid’ and the fact that it has had to contend with the hazards of broken glass on the top of walls.
Keats only occasionally disrupts the iambic pentameter, inverting the first foot of the first line to give emphasis to his subject, and again in line 11 when the damage of the cat’s ‘tail’s tip’ being ‘nicked off’ is highlighted by two spondees. Then he adds extra syllables and intersperses two iambs with three anapests to convey the speed of the maids’ assaults in l.12.
 Investigating structure and versification of To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
  • ‘Although the poem is a piece of light-hearted whimsy, Keats shows his mastery of form and language.’ Comment on those features of structure and versification that seem to you to demonstrate this mastery.
  • Comment on the effect of enjambement between lines 2/3 and on the effect of the caesura coming after the first word of line 3. 
  • What is the effect of further enjambment between lines 3 and 8 – none of which is end-stopped?
  • How does Keats vary the rhythm of the sonnet in line with its subject matter?
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