This is a graduate school exercise that I once tarted up for a special Yeats issue of Some Journal. It was rejected by Some Journal. After which I too rejected it, allowing it to languish in my files. But always with the thought of someday doing something with it.
Well now’s that day. I’ve dusted off the old typescript, run it through the scanner. And de-tarted it.
As the title indicates, this is analysis of Yeats’s “The Cat and the Moon.” It displays my characteristic obsessions with form and descriptive detail. Which means you may find it a bit of a slog; paying attention to those details can be, well, a bit tedious. On the formal side, I look at the way lines are grouped by rhyme frames and by sentences. On that matter alone the poem can be divided into three sections: 11. 1 – 8, 9 – 16, and 17 – 29. In the middle section rhyme grouping and sentence grouping are at cross purposes; rhyme and sentence groupings are consistent in the first and third sections (cf. my remarks on structural instability and my work on “Kubla Khan”). There’s more to the analysis than that; I do look at what the poem actually says. But that’s the skeleton.
I’ve included a full text at the end of the essay.
Let us then consider the poem as it unfolds itself.
1) The cat went here and there
2) And the moon spun round like a top,
3) And the nearest kin of the moon,
4) The creeping cat, looked up.
Is it not odd to describe the motion of the moon as spinning, thereby making a top of it? The moon doesn't move fast enough for its motion to be perceived, except as we observe it over the course of several hours, and then days.
I wish to risk over-reading and suggest that it is to the “creeping cat” that the moon spins like a top, for he is egocentrically (to borrow a term from Piaget) reading his own movement onto the moon, which is fixed in relation to the cat’s motion – the image works much like the passage in the first book of Wordsworth's Prelude where the young poet steals a rowboat and projects the effects of the moving boat onto the mountain so that the mountain is perceived as following the poet. If this is so, then the image, “spun round like at top,” implicates the cat as well, and we have the two inter-penetrating gyres, the cat, and the moon. They are nearest kin, at this stage in the poem, because the moon would not spin round like a top if the cat did not creep here and there. At this stage their kinship lies more in the image in which they are placed than in any natural likeness between cats and moons. (I say “at this stage” for the penultimate sentence of the poem gives another ground of kinship.)
So, we have two participants in the image. The first line introduces one participant, the cat, and the second line introduces the other, the moon. It isn't until the fourth line that we realize that what seems to be a third participant, which is “the nearest kin of the moon,” is in fact the first, the cat. In the third line Yeats opens up a space, signaled by ”the nearest kin” which could be filled by a third participant, which in fact is not. The mind is drawn forward, expecting to go on, and is then abruptly turned back on itself, as the cat looks up. This movement is complemented by the rather pedestrian choice of words with which to begin the lines: the, and, and, the.
No other group of lines in the poem begins in so deliberately pedestrian a way. With the “and” opening the third line one senses the possibility of a repeated syntactically weak concatenation of clauses with no promise of closure. The repetition of “the” to open the fourth line immediately sends one back to the opening line, mirroring the semantic motion in the line. This repetition creates an almost muscular feel for the conflict and tension present in the image of the cat and the moon. This muscular feel is picked up in the weak rhymes in lines two and four – “like a top,” “look up.” The sound is close enough to be heard as a rhyme, but not so close that that hearing is effortless.
The poem continues:
5) Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
6) For, wander and wail as he would,
7) The pure cold light in the sky
8) Troubled his animal blood.
That the moon is white is common knowledge; now we learn that the cat is named Minnaloushe and that he is black, in contrast to the white of the moon. It is a trivial matter to infer contrast between the white of the moon and the blackness of the sky, and, when the moon is not full, to infer a white/black contrast between the visible and invisible portions of the moon. The opposition of black cat and white moon is no simple juxtaposition; each is bound to and emerges into meaning only in contrast with the opposite, for the cat and the moon, in addition to being opposed, are close kin. The moon is a “pure cold light” and Minnaloushe's “animal blood” is, I suspect, warm and passionate. I would further suggest that there is an undercurrent of sexuality in Minnaloushe's disturbance – for both cats and moons are frequently sexual symbols in our cultural tradition. In response to the moon, Minnaloushe wanders and wails, which does him no good; the moon is still disturbing.
The first four lines of the poem are rhymed A B C B and so it is with the second four. Again the rhyme is weak, “top” with “up,” lines 2 and 4, “would” with “blood,” lines 7 and 8. The vowel sounds are close, but not identical. The ear must work to grasp the rhyme.
To this point we have two sentences, each four lines long (full stops at the ends of 4 and 8), each rhymed A B C B. We will see that each successive group of four lines is so rhymed, but, for the next eight lines this rhyme grouping doesn't correspond to the syntactic grouping. In lines 9 through 16 the grouping of lines into sentences cuts across their grouping into four-line rhyme structure, thus: 9 and 10 (ends with: .), line 11 alone (?), 12 and 13 (?), 14 through 16 (.). Here are the lines:
9) Minnaloushe runs in the grass 10) Lifting his delicate feet. 11) Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? 12) When two close kindred meet, 13) What better than call a dance? 14) Maybe the moon may learn, 15) Tired of that courtly fashion, 16) A new dance turn.
The rhyme can be analyzed into two groups of A B C B: “grass,” “feet,” “dance,” “meet,” and “dance,” “learn,” “fashion,” “turn.” As in the first eight lines, the first line of the second group of four ends with the same word which ended the third line of the first group, respectively, “moon” (11. 3, 5) and “dance,” (11. 11, 13). Unlike the rhymes in the first eight lines, the rhymes here are strong: “feet” and “meet,” “learn” and “turn” vs. “top” and “up,” “would” and “blood.” Quite possibly Yeats strengthened the rhyme to create a more forceful closure over the more fragmented syntax – four sentences, two of them questions, in the second eight lines, as opposed to only two sentences, aligned, with, rather than against, the rhyme structure, in the first eight lines. As the poem comes to talk of a dance, it begins, in the relationship between sound and syntax, itself to dance.
I take it that the first eight lines of the poem is one section, the next eight lines constitute another section, and the last twelve lines will constitute a third section.
In the first section Minnaloushe went creeping here and there, wandering and wailing, but his gaze is fixed on the moon. The motion, unlike a dance, is not precisely directed in the paths it cuts through space. This transition from nondirected motion to the dancing design is elegantly effected by the sentence “Minnaloushe runs in the grass/ Lifting his delicate feet.” Perhaps “runs” implies a slight shift toward purposefulness, but the burden of the transition is carried by “Lifting his delicate feet.” What Yeats has achieved here is indeed a delicate feat – from “Troubled his animal blood,” to a dance, in only two, short, lines. Delicacy hardly seems consonant with animal passion; yet the transition is pulled off with abrupt – for we are quickly brought to a full stop after only two lines – grace. There follows a rhetorical question, directed into the poem toward Minnaloushe, “Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?” Then another rhetorical question, directed out of the poem and toward the reader (and the poet is, among other things, a reader), “When two close kindred meet,/ What better than call a dance?”
Minnaloushe’s response to the moon has, so far, three phases: 1) to “wander and wail", 2) to stare at the moon, and 3) to dance with the moon, a kinsman. Either that or the poet has so shifted perspective that what had first appeared as wandering-in-the-face-of now appears as dancing-with. I choose the first formulation because it is easier to talk about, though it may be that at some level it makes no difference whether one talks about the changing relationship between the cat and the moon or the apparent changes projected onto a constant relationship by a mind which, like the moon, itself goes through phases.
In any case, I take it that the two rhetorical questions are the fulcrum about which the poem pivots. Through the first question the cat's awareness is intermingled with the poet's and through the second question the reader's awareness is intermingled with the intermingled awareness arising from the first question. An ordinary question implies two subjects, ego who asks, and alter who answers. A rhetorical question, at least as it functions in this poem, implies that ego and alter are merged; for no answer is required or expected or necessary and if that is the case the question is not a question. Rather, the rhetorical question is a way to state how matters stand which at the same time holds up to view, at the far side of the question mark, the subjectivity which is making the statement – a subjectivity indifferent to the distinction between ego and alter. All awareness is in the poet is in Minnaloushe.
Finally, another transition is made: “Maybe the moon may learn,/ Tired of that courtly fashion,/ A new dance turn.” “Tired of that courtly fashion” – as if this dance had gone on for quite a long time! The problem now is that order has become boring, so the moon, in conjunction with the cat, learns a new step – “A new dance turn.” With the said the poem itself takes a new turn and segues into the final movement, which opens:
17) Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
18) From moonlit place to place,
19) The sacred moon overhead
20) Has taken a new phase.
The poem returns to the four line sentence, weakly rhymed A B C B. There is no more dance, “Minnaloushe creeps,” and the moon – now called sacred – has, like the poem, “taken a new phase.” The movement continues:
21) Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
22) Will pass from change to change,
23) And that from round to crescent,
24) From crescent to round they range?
Again, we have a four line sentence; this time the rhyme is strong (“change,” “range”), perhaps indicating that something of the second movement of the poem, where the rhyme was strong, has been brought into conjunction with something of the first movement of the poem, where rhyme structure was coordinated with the four line sentence. I can easily imagine that strong rhyme invokes one feeling and that weak rhyme another; the same could hold for unified syntax and fragmented syntax. These two elements can be combined in different ways to give rise to different feelings. Unified syntactic grouping and strong rhyme is a combination new to this poem and may well invoke a new emotional tonality.
The image here is obvious enough. Both the moon and the cat's eye go through phases, “from round to crescent,/ From crescent to round” – the progression of words used to embody this image is itself cyclic and mirrors the image it carries. Herein lies the kinship between the cat and the moon; both participate in the same pattern, the same image, of a light which changes cyclically through phases. The cat reflects the moon, for the light in his eyes is light reflected into them from the moon, and the moon reflects the cat, having, through the cat, learned a new dance turn. The black of the cat is to the cat's pupils as the black of night is to the light of the moon; the black of the cat's eye is to the lighted crescent of the pupil as the black of the shadowed portion of the moon is to its lighted crescent. The moon is in the cat, and the cat, I believe, is equally in the sky. When we look at the crescent moon in the sky we could be looking into the eye of a black cat – that is the perception towards which the poem impels us.
Yet the direction of the poem is, at this point, toward separation. These four lines take the form of a rhetorical question, but one which includes only the poet and the reader; Minnaloushe is clearly the object of the question. I take it that the moon is sacred, in part, because something has, in the dance of the poem's second movement, entered the moon, something of the cat’s “troubled animal blood.” This being done, the moon can take a new phase and the cat can again creep about “From moonlit place to place” without orienting himself toward the moon, for in the dance the moon has entered him and lodged in the pupils of his eyes. Having entered each other, the two can separate. The poem concludes:
25) Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
26) Alone, important and wise,
27) And lifts to the changing moon
28) His changing eyes.
Need I point it out – a four line sentence, A B C B, a strong rhyme? No longer troubled, Minnaloushe is now “Alone, important and wise.” When he was troubled Minnaloushe was led into a dancing conjunction with the moon; through that conjunction the moon came out sacred and the cat, “Alone, important, and wise” – and with the moon in his eyes. When he “lifts to the changing moon/ His changing eyes,” he does so, not because he is troubled, but out of mutual participation in the same pattern, a pattern involving both the cat and the moon, but grounded exclusively in neither, a pattern of cyclical change.
The pattern seems to be this:
1) the cat and the moon are separate and opposed, the cat wanders and wails,2) the cat comes to stare at the moon,3) the cat and the moon come into conjunction through the dance,4) they separate, but are not opposed, the moon being sacred, the cat alone and wise, and finally5) – a phase not in the poem but strongly implied in Yeats’ conception of cyclic change – once again, separate and opposed, a new cycle must begin; the poem must be re-created.
The poem’s significance is embodied through a syntactic and sound structure which also goes through phases, phases which complement that semantic structure. The first phase consists of two four line sentences, each weakly rhymed A B C B. The second phase continues the four line rhyme groups, but the rhymes are strong. In both phases the two rhyme groups are linked together by a word common to each, “moon” in the first phase, “dance” in the second, placed in the same structural position. But the second phase has a fragmented syntax which doesn’t operate in any obvious synchrony with the rhyme and it also contains two rhetorical questions.
The last phase re-turns to the synchrony of four line sentence and rhyme, but in the last two sentences the rhymes are strong: and neither of the two successive pairs of sentences (“Minnaloushe creeps . . .” (17) paired with “Does Minnaloushe . . . “ (21); “Does Minnaloushe . . .” (21) paired with the final “Minnaloushe creeps . . .” (25)) are linked by a common rhyme word – though the first and the third begin with exactly the same line and therefore have a word, “grass”" in common at the line end. The penultimate sentence is a rhetorical question and the final sentence is strong assertion. Thus the poem embodies, in both sound and sense, the cyclic interpenetration of opposites which is its meaning. The mind must, in reading the poem, recreate in itself that motion and emotion which is seen in the dance of the cat and the moon.
What is most amazing is that the technical virtuosity required is almost totally invisible. Nothing is labored or forced; the language is simple and yet vigorous. Technique has become totally absorbed into the meanings constituted through that technique. The dancer and the dance are, in this poem, one.
Yeats published the poem as a single long stanza. I’ve added empty lines to highlight the major structural divisions within the poem.
The Cat and The Moon W. B. Yeats 1) The cat went here and there 2) And the moon spun round like a top, 3) And the nearest kin of the moon, 4) The creeping cat, looked up. 5) Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon, 6) For, wander and wail as he would, 7) The pure cold light in the sky 8) Troubled his animal blood. 9) Minnaloushe runs in the grass 10) Lifting his delicate feet. 11) Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance? 12) When two close kindred meet, 13) What better than call a dance? 14) Maybe the moon may learn, 15) Tired of that courtly fashion, 16) A new dance turn. 17) Minnaloushe creeps through the grass 18) From moonlit place to place, 19) The sacred moon overhead 20) Has taken a new phase. 21) Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils 22) Will pass from change to change, 23) And that from round to crescent, 24) From crescent to round they range? 25) Minnaloushe creeps through the grass 26) Alone, important and wise, 27) And lifts to the changing moon 28) His changing eyes.
First published in The Valve on 9 April 2010.