The Cat and the Moon
By W. B. Yeats
The cat went here and there
And the moon spun around like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon
The creeping cat looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For wander and wail as he would
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnalousche runs in the grass,
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnalousche, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnalousche creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnalousche know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnalousche creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.
The Cat and the Moon is, on the surface, about a cat trying to catch the moon. It’s been suggested that the cat in the poem was based on either Maud Gonne’s cat (the muse and love of Yeats), or his friend, Lady Gregory’s. However, it’s also about a dance between lovers (the cat here represents Yeats, whilst the moon would be Maud Gonne), and may also hint at the Romantic concept of mutability (this basically means ‘change’, but it’s an idea that the Romantic Poets latched onto in their works).
Metre & Structure
The poem moves rhythmically with a mainly iambic metre to accentuate the tone of a dance. A mixture of assonance and alliteration then gives it a soft tonality that matches the lyrical, child-like feel to it.
Line by Line
- “The cat went here and there / And the moon spun round like a top” – No matter what Yeats does, as he goes “here and there”, he cannot reach the moon (Gonne); she, meanwhile, “spun” in front of Yeats, which gives the impression that she’s almost laughing at him. Spinning also means that she would be constantly changing, the first link to the concept of mutability. This changing could be a reference to age, or else her revolutionary involvement. Yeats sees her everywhere he goes, but he can never reach her. There is a duality between Yeats’ movement and Gonne’s, the “and” pairing them; this could demonstrate how, in Yeats’ opinion, he and Maud belong together. Despite this, their movements are too different; one spins gracefully while the other darts “here and there”.
- “And the nearest kin of the moon” – Hints at Yeats’ relationship with Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter. He sees her as a part of the dance, but she will always come second to Maud (this is shown by the preceding description of the moon in juxtaposition to Iseult’s reference).
- “Creeping cat” / “Stared at the Moon” / “For wander and wail” – These phrases show Yeats’ general self-hatred; his love for Gonne controls him. He is always “creeping” towards her, even though the physical distance between them will always be too far. This demonstrates his acceptance of the fact that he will never be with Gonne, an idea also considered in “The Cold Heaven“.
- “Animal blood” – Yeats bestialises himself as Minnalousche (thought to be the name of the cat Yeats based The Cat and the Moon on), perhaps to suggest that he is not in control of himself when it comes to Gonne – he is driven by his more primal instincts.
- “Do you dance, Minnalousche, do you dance?” – This rhetorical question accentuates the idea that Yeats is questioning his attitude, as well as his future. He mocks himself, the repetition here amplifying the impression that the poem is actually a song.
- “What better than to call a dance?” – This directly links “dance” to the poem. Yeats sees himself as taking part in a neverending dance.
- “Maybe the moon may learn, / Tired of that courtly fashion, / A new dance turn.” – This is a contrast to earlier as Yeats hopes that Gonne will change and suddenly accept him as her lover. “A new dance turn” may also reference Iseult, as he considers his relationship with Maud’s daughter.
- “From moonlit place to place” – Yeats reminds us of how his love for Gonne is eternal, haunting him wherever he goes, just like the moon. Yet, at the same time, it could be argued that he only feels the love some of the time, as the moon does not shine in the day.
- “Change to change“ – In these few lines, as well as the final two, Yeats considers how he and Gonne will change over time (similar to how he wrote, “there is gray in your hair” in his “Broken Dreams”. It could also represent how he is beginning to resent his eternal love for her.
- “Alone, important and wise” – Yeats closes the poem with his self-praise, to perhaps reassure himself that he is not as weak and worthless as Gonne’s rejection makes him feel. The Cat and the Moon thus acts as a journey of Yeats’ acceptance of the situation; although he creeps through the grass after the moon, he sees himself as wise, because he knows that he has no choice.
The Cat and the Moon is, on the surface, one of Yeats’ less serious poems; because of its form and metre, it is almost impossible to read the poem in anything but a sing-song voice. Yet this poem still addresses big concerns that were quite important to Yeats. He thinks a lot about Maud Gonne, and her place, as well as her daughter’s, in his own dance. Overall, though, the poem represents change. It considers how people change, and how dances change.
Whether Yeats is accepting that, as he and Gonne change, their relationship may never prosper, or he is still hoping for “a new dance turn”, he is looking to the future in a somewhat positive way, particularly compared to some of his other poems, such as in “The Cold Heaven“. This leaves his readers on a positive note, which gives a satisfactory feel to the close of the poem.