Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Edward Hirsch: "Wild Gratitude"

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat's mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In every one of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke's
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
"And all conveyancers of letters" for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn't until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth
That I remembered how he'd called Jeoffry "the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,"
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn't until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, "a creature of great personal valour,"
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

"Wild Gratitude" by Edward Hirsch, from Wild Gratitude: Poems. © Knopf, 1986.

Photography credit: "Cat Lying Back," by unknown photographer (originally color).


  1. My first reaction -- Oh, no, not another poem about a poet's too cute cat! -- quickly replaced by the realization that this may be THE cat poem (if it can be called that) worth more than a quick read and a faint smile. May be worth real study. Thank you, Phyllis, for bringing it to our attention.

    1. Well, I doubt that Hirsch would ever stoop to writing a poem only about his "too cute cat." :) But I know what you mean. As you suggest, I think there's a lot going on here worthy of our attention. Thanks for your candor and humor and openness, Ralph.

  2. This is a sweet, sweet poem..And as you both discussed several years ago there is much going on here. I was moved by it, by Christopher Smart and the life that he seems to have lived, by the love of these creatures we call cats over the centuries, perhaps millennia and by the unspoken embrace of life. I have dwelled on the poem for days and shared it with others. Once again Phylis, a deep bow, a thank you.


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