To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

There are some humorous contrasts of imagery. In the sonnet’s octave the imagery is grand and portentous. The cat’s image is that of a destroyer with ‘talons’ used in many a ‘fray’. In the sestet the imagery is of a very different nature. Here the cat has ‘dainty wrists’ and ‘wheezy asthma’. This time it is the maid who is equipped with ‘fists’ capable of delivering a ‘maul’. 
The final image is of the cat as a knight at a tournament entering the ‘lists’, the grandeur of this idea soon deflated to feline paws treading between the wall’s shards of broken bottles.
In a light-hearted manner, the cat could be seen as symbolising the inevitable passing of time and with it a decline from strength and vigour to the garrulous indolence of old age. 

Investigating imagery and symbolism of To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

  • Give examples of the humorous contrasts of imagery in the sonnet.
    • How do they help to shape the different tones of the two sections of the poem?
  • How do you respond to the final image of the cat as a knight entering the lists to fight?
  • Do you agree that the cat seems to symbolise the inevitable decline of life from the vigour of youth to the physical decline of old age?
    • Or do you think this is reading too much into what is actually a very light-hearted poem?

Themes in To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

This is a humorous poem for Keats’ own amusement and that of his friends. 
It applies traditionally weighty themes such as the passing of time and the inevitability of physical and mental decline to a domestic pet. The cat used to be a fearless specimen: now it just curls up on the poet’s lap.
However, even after a life time of surviving injury, illness and attacking maids, the cat maintains some of the softness of its youth, thus hinting at the idea that, despite aging, we do not abandon the past but continue to carry it with us to death. Keats envisages that the cat would be happy to relate all the ‘frays’ which are alive in its memory, even as its body is no longer capable of such feats

Investigating themes in To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat

  • ‘A poem for amusement or a poem which deals with weighty themes with lightness of touch?’ Which of these seems to be the more convincing reading of the sonnet?
  • ‘Despite aging, we do not abandon the past but continue to carry it with us to death.’ Do you think we are justified in finding this idea within the poem?
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