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"Peter," a domestic cat, does not have the brilliance of Christopher Smart's Jeffery (with which all cat poems, I suppose, must ultimately be compared), yet the poem succeeds in giving Peter an inviolable life of his own; he makes us see and appreciate catness. His human author begins by examining him in sleep, noticing eyebrow and whisker and "detached first claw." He is, like all Marianne Moore's animals, compared with a variety of forms we do not usually associate with cats. For instance, in sleep "he lets himself be flattened out by gravity, / as seaweed is tamed and weakened by the sun." He has a "prune-shaped head and alligator eyes"; he may, when he is asleep, be proxy for a snake or "dangled like an eel / or set up on the forearm like a mouse." He is a predator, but may be the prey of our imaginations while he sleeps, for then he is not himself.

Still, "profound sleep is not with him a fixed illusion," nor is it with the poet, who has certain dreamlike illusions about his inactive form.

Springing about with froglike accuracy, with jerky cries 

when taken in hand, he is himself again; 

to sit caged by the rungs of a domestic chair 

would be unprofitable—human. What is the good of hypocrisy?

Cats do as they please, will not be tamed or misled by appearances as humans will. A cat has no use for pretense, will change occupations at whim (as cat-admiring poets may change images), and he will not condescend.

He can talk but insolently says nothing. . . . 

As for the disposition invariably to affront, 

an animal with claws should have an opportunity to use them.

As, we may add, should the poet of wit who, like the hero, does not like some things. Peter's mission is "to leap, to lengthen out, divide the air, to purloin, to pursue." In all these activities he is not unlike the poet who names him; curiosity may kill him and "a fight with nature or with cats" may scare him, but he does not hide his natural responses. He expresses them. "To do less would be nothing but dishonesty ."


From Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press.