Essays in Miniature/Old World Pets


WE have grown to be very narrow-minded, very exclusive, and hopelessly unimaginative in our choice of domestic pets. We love and cherish the dog, and we have a sentiment, less universal but far more disinterested, in favor of the beautiful and cold-hearted cat. We keep canaries in gilded cages—and there the matter practically ends. A few rabbits in a hutch—which are never petted—an occasional parrot feared by its master and hated by its master's friends; a little song-bird imprisoned now and then, and slowly dying of despair; these are instances, happily too infrequent to count very heavily in the scale. As a fact, many people value the dog and cat for their serviceable qualities alone; exiling the first to the kennel and the second to the kitchen, and liking both, as Miss Mitford confessed she liked children, "in their place"—meaning any place where she was not.

But when we turn back to the past we find, or think we find, a very different state of affairs; an almost endless variety of little wild creatures, tamed by luxury and love. The dog still holds his own, and we need look no further than the Odyssey to see, in the great hound Argus, the splendid sagacity, the unswerving loyalty, which centuries have not altered or impaired. I have always wished that Argus could have had Sir Walter Scott, rather than the crafty Odysseus for a master. There is also a pathetic dialogue in Theocritus between two old fishermen, who are so poor they may not even own a watchdog to guard their scanty spoils:

"All things, all, to them seemed superfluity, for Poverty was their sentinel. They had no neighbor by them, but ever against their narrow cabin gently floated up the sea."

Cats, too, were valued pets in former days, and probably found such easy domesticity more to their tastes than the burdensome honors of Egypt. In fact, when the Egyptian cat was not living in sanctified seclusion as the friend and favorite of Pasht, she was apparently earning a laborious livelihood as a retriever, if we may trust a relic of Egyptian art in the British Museum, which shows us a magnificent animal carrying no less than three struggling wild fowls in her mouth and claws. But when Puss at last entered Greece and Rome, about the time of the Christian era, or perhaps a century or two earlier, it was simply as a plaything; and Mr. Pater in "Marius the Epicurean" describes very charmingly the snow-white beast brought by one of the guests to a Roman banquet, and purring its way among the wine-cups in response to caresses and coaxing words. Mrs. Graham R. Tomson, that most winning chronicler of the cat's vicissitudes and triumphs, has also told us in graceful verse the history of a Greek lover who loses his mistress because he dares not bring her from Egypt one of these coveted and mysterious creatures:

"A little lion, small and dainty sweet,
(For such there be!)
With sea-grey eyes and softly stepping feet,
She prayed of me.
For this, through lands Egyptian far away
She bade me pass;
But, in an evil hour, I said her nay—
And now, alas!
Far-traveled Nicias hath wooed and won
With gifts of furry creatures white and dun
From over-sea."

In the Museum of Antiquities, at Bordeaux, there is a mutilated tomb of the Gallo-Roman period showing still the indistinct outlines of a young girl and her two pets; a cat clasped—very uncomfortably—in her arms, and, at her feet, a dignified cock, which appears to be pecking viciously at poor pussy's drooping tail.

The few allusions we find to the cat in later Greek poetry are hardly of a flattering nature. Theocritus makes the impatient Praxinoë, in his XVth Idyl, say to her handmaid, "Eunoë, bring the water and put it down in the middle of the room, lazy creature that you are! Cats like always to sleep soft,"—quite as if it were disgraceful in them to enjoy their ease. The same passage is interpreted somewhat differently, and in a still more uncharitable spirit by Mr. Matthew Arnold: "Eunoë, pick up your work, and take care, lazy girl, how you leave it lying about again! The cats find it just the bed they like." At least we know, by this token, that Puss was an inmate—understood if not honored—of the Alexandrian household. There is also a dog; for Praxinoë, on going out, bids Phrygia, the nurse, "Take the child, and keep him amused; call in the dog, and shut the street door."

Perhaps it was the very diversity of pets that so often brought the cat into disgrace. She is not wont to tolerate divided affections, and the old primitive, savage instincts are very strong within her little breast. Consequently, there comes down to us out of the past a bitter wail of lamentation from foolish mortals who seem to have forgotten what a natural and wholesome thing it is for one creature to devour another. Agathias, a poet of the sixth century, has left us two mournful epigrams upon a favorite partridge ruthlessly done to death by a swift-footed and hungry cat:

"O my partridge! Poor exile from the rocks and the heath, thy little willow house possesses thee no longer. No more dost thou rustle thy wings in the warmth of the rising sun. A cat has torn off thy head. I seized thy body and rescued it from his cruel jaws. Let the earth lie not too lightly on thee, lest thy enemy discover and drag thee from thy quiet grave."

The second epigram is quite as disconsolate and more vengeful in its tone:

"The domestic cat which has eaten my partridge flatters himself that he is still to live under my roof. No, dear bird, I will not leave thee unavenged, but on thy grave will I slay thy murderer. For thy shade, which roams tormented, cannot be quieted until I shall have done that which Pyrrhus did upon the grave of Achilles."

As if these direful threats were not enough, Damocharis, a disciple of Agathias, follows up the case with a third epigram in which he bewails the cruelty of the cat, and compares it with burning eloquence to one of Aktæon's hounds, which devoured its own master. "Here is a pretty pother about a partridge!" protests M. Champfleury, with the pardonable irritation of one who is wont to deal leniently with the shortcomings of his favorite animal, and who fails to sympathize with this excess of grief. Pet partridges, indeed, are hardly in accord with modern taste, which is apt to regard them from the same simple point of view as did the cat of Agathias. Neither is the sparrow a popular plaything as in the days when Lesbia wept inconsolably for her dead bird, and Catullus sang in silvery strains to soothe her wounded heart. With what generous sympathy the lover laments and calls on the Loves and Graces, and on all the fair youths of Rome to lament with him this shocking and irreparable loss:

"Dead my Lesbia's sparrow is,
Sparrow that was all her bliss,
Than her very eyes more dear."

How sombre is the picture he draws of the little petted creature that in life never strayed from the white bosom of its mistress, and that now must tread alone the gloomy pathway whence not even a bird may return. It is really heartrending to listen to his grief:

"Out upon you and your power
Which all fairest things devour,
Orcus' gloomy shades! that e'er
Ye took my Bird that was so fair.

Ah! the pity of it! Thou
Poor Bird! thy doing 'tis that now
My Loved One's eyes are swollen and red
With weeping for her darling dead."[1]

Almost as pathetic, and quite as musical as this melancholy dirge, are some of the epigrams to be found in that charming volume of translations from the Greek Anthology, which Lilla Cabot Perry has aptly entitled From the Garden of Hellas. Here we have graceful and tender verses dedicated to the memory of pet beasts and birds and insects, one of them, indeed, bewailing the hard fate of a locust and a cicada, which, beloved by the same mistress, sleep, equally lamented, side by side:

"Unto the locust, nightingale of fields,
And the cicada, who was wont to drowse
Through summer heat amid the oaken boughs,
This common tomb the maiden Myro builds;
And, like a child, weeps that she could not save
These twain, her cherished playthings, from the grave."

What can be prettier than such a requiem sung by Leonidas, and breathing in every line a sentiment half natural, half assumed! We look back into the past, and smile, but with no unfeeling mirth, to see the tiny tomb with its cold and silent inmates whose shrill, amorous music is hushed for evermore. Nor were they alone in their sad distinction, for on every side other deserving insects were as decorously interred, and as tunefully bewailed. The poet who mourned for the "maiden Myro's" play-things, was fain to sing with the same ready sympathy and the same charming grace the praises of Philænida's pet locust, loved and lost:

"What if small, O passer-by,
Be this stone! 'tis mine you see.
What if it you scarce descry!
Philænida gave it me.

"Praise her that she held me dear,
Me, her little locust, singing,
Whether in the stubble here
Or amid the bushes winging.

"Two long years she loved me well.
Loved my drowsy lullaby;
Me e'en dead did not repel,
As these verses testify."

Another epigram by Mnasalcas bewails a similar loss, and inclines us slowly to the painful conviction that all Greece must have been in mourning for these short-lived insects, which, like poor Hinda's tantalizing gazelles, appear to have made a point of dying just when they had grown most dear. It is a positive relief to find Meleager dedicating his verses to a pet cicada which is still alive and enjoying its master's tender care:

"Cicada, you who chase away desire,
Cicada, who beguile our sleepless hours,
You song-winged muse of meadows and of flowers,
Who are the natural mimic of the lyre,
Chirp a familiar melody and sweet.
My weight of sleepless care to drive away;
Your love-beguiling tune to me now play,
Striking your prattling wings with your dear feet.
In early morning I'll bring gifts to you
Of garlic ever fresh and drops of dew."

There is an exquisite description in the first Idyl of Theocritus of a deep bowl of ivy wood, the gift of a goatherd to the singer Thyrsis, on which is carved, among other pastoral scenes, a boy weaving a locust cage while he guards the vineyard from the foxes. Just such a dainty toy he weaves as may well have been the habitation of those luxurious and thrice-favored insects, the petted captives of Myro and fair Philænida:

"Now divided but a little space from the sea-worn old man is a vineyard laden well with fire-red clusters, and on the rough wall a little lad watches the vineyard, sitting there. Round him two she-foxes are skulking, and one goes along the vine rows to devour the ripe grapes, and the other brings all her cunning to bear against the scrip, and vows she will never leave the lad till she strand him bare and breakfastless. But the boy is plaiting a pretty locust cage with stalks of asphodel, and fitting it with reeds; and less care of his scrip has he, or of the vines, than delight in his plaiting."[2]

Kids and lambs are pastoral playthings which the rustic lovers of Theocritus delight in offering to their fair ones; and in the Vth Idyl Comatus complains to Lacon that he has given a bird to Alcippe and won from her no kiss in return. Whereupon Lacon, in the true spirit of amorous boastfulness, protests that he gave but a shepherd's pipe to his maiden, and sweetly she kissed and caressed him. A great hound, strong enough to strangle wolves, a mixing bowl wrought by the hand of Praxiteles, a vessel of cypress wood, a soft fleece from the newly shorn ewe, and a brooding ring-dove are among the presents offered by these shepherds in generous rivalry at the shrine of love.

But by far the most winning pet whose memory has come down to us enshrined in Greek verse is the little wildwood hare, cherished by a young girl, and sung by the poet Meleager. Gentler and more affectionate than Cowper's sturdy favorites, it shares with them a modest fame, a quiet corner in the long gallery of prized and honored beasts. To those who have loved Tiney and Puss from childhood, it is a pleasure to see by their side this shrinking stranger, this poor little overfed, much-caressed darling whose race was quickly run:

"From my mother's teats they tore me,
Little long-eared hare, and bore me,
The swift-footed, from her breast.
Phanium, soft-handed, fed me
On spring flowers, and nourishèd me,
Fondling in her lap to rest.

"No more for my mother sighing,
Feasting daintily, then dying;
I by too much food was slain.
And she buried me with weeping
Near her house, that she, while sleeping,
Me in dreams might see again."[3]

On what smooth Elysian sward does this little Grecian hare sport with his English cousins? Fed, perchance, by Persephone's white hand, they gambol for evermore by the deep waters of Oblivion; and the gray ghosts, flitting by, smile with sad eyes upon the nimble creatures who, shadows in shadowland, yet bear in every limb rich memories of woodland glade, and of the dear, life-giving soil of earth.

  1. Translated by Sir Theodore Martin.
  2. Translation of Mr. Andrew Lang.
  3. Translation of Lilla Cabot Perry.