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Eliot’s Nocturnal Hackery (or, Moriarty in a Catsuit)

Lily’s appropriation thread reminded me of something that I had been reminded of only yesterday (but had since already forgotten).

Have you heard of the poet named T.S. Eliot? He apparently wrote a poem about a cat (of all things), and it contained some appropriation:

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macacity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, or one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

(“Macavity: The Mystery Cat,” 1939)

This is the last stanza (and it’s pretty bad, I think—I mean, “just controls their operations”?—but I’ll try not to get distracted). What’s relevant here is that its very last line (and I have heard it said—although I do not believe—that the last line is a privileged position in a poem) is in fact a direct steal from another author—and from a knight, no less!

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Final Problem” (1893)

Indeed, the entire character of Macavity seems little more than Moriarty in a catsuit.

Eliot was so ashamed of his theft that he tried to publish this poem under a pseudonym, “Old Possum.” This was obviously another swipe, this time to Captain John Smith, who in 1608 famously wrote:

An Opassom hath an head like a Swine,

and a taile like a Rat,

and is of the bignes of a Cat.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

13 thoughts on “Eliot’s Nocturnal Hackery (or, Moriarty in a Catsuit)

  1. as much as i love Eliot, i am a bit ashamed of his cat poems. largely because they are cat poems. we carry Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, so i am faced with this embarrassing detail of Eliot’s career on a daily basis.

  2. @ Lily: Thanks, Lily!

    @ Ryan: I rather like Eliot’s cat poems myself, and have long championed them over his other, lesser poetry. Indeed, I’d like to edit an anthology of other poets’ cat poems. I’m sure the result would be lovely, perhaps even lovelier than Eliot’s, although I doubt they’d also be so practical.

    How about it? Would anyone be interested in submitting to my newly-announced cat poetry anthology?


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