Poem Elf sub and daughter Lizzie has a cat, so I asked her to post “On a Night of Snow” by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a poem about a cat who wants to go outdoors in wild weather. Santa would not cooperate for a photo op, so Lizzie placed the poem sans Santa at the entry to Cathead Bay Trail in Leelanau. The trail leads to Lake Michigan. Last summer we spent a glorious day on the trail escaping the confines of quarantine, feeling free and happy and unbound, a fact not unrelevant to this posting.
On a Night of Snow
by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Cat, if you go outdoors, you must walk in the snow.
You will come back with little white shoes on your feet,
little white shoes of snow that have heels of sleet.
Stay by the fire, my Cat. Lie still, do not go.
See how the flames are leaping and hissing low,
I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite,
so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet –
stay with me, Cat. Outdoors the wild winds blow.
Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night,
strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore,
and more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar –
Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might,
and things that are yet to be done. Open the door!
This poem is at least seventy years old and probably older than that. It has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus and yet I can’t read it any other way.
Here we have a conversation between mistress and cat. (Mistress, by the way, is an old-fashioned term that should be revived to describe the human-cat relationship. Cats would never agree to have “owners.”) Mistress tries to entice the cat to stay indoors with promises of cozy fires and saucers of milk. Picture Dr. Fauci at the doorway with granny glasses and a lacy cap, calling after the cat, Be safe! Stay inside!
In the second stanza the cat speaks for all the stir-crazy among us—Open the door! Cat is not scared, Cat is excited. Outdoors there’s magic, adventure and possibly danger—
more than cats move, lit by our eyes green light,
on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar
Even in non-lockdown days, the neat contrast laid out between indoor and outdoor life points to a very human set of preferences, between those who want safety and comfort and those who want risk and adventure. Most of us probably want a little of both—a cup of that milk so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet and some portion of portents abroad of magic and might.
Coatsworth herself seems to have spent a lifetime balancing the two instincts. She was a world traveler, a woman who rode donkeys across Egyptian deserts, but also a woman spent years and years at idyllic Chimney Farm in Maine raising her two daughters. Her life takes me back to my favorite poem, “Among Women” by Marie Ponsot, which begins with the question What women wander? and ends with these lines—
As best they can.
Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) is known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also published poetry in the New Yorker, and wrote a few memoirs and novels for adults.
She was born to a wealthy family in Buffalo, New York. As a child she traveled in Europe and the Middle East. She graduated from Vassar, and earned a Master of Arts in 1916 from Columbia University. After graduating she went traveling through Asia. She rode horses in the Philippines and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.
When she was 36 she married writer and naturalist Henry Beston. They lived in New England and had two daughters. Her daughter Kate Barnes later became poet laureate of Maine.
Coatsworth’s children’s book The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1930) won the Newbery Medal. (The book tells the story of a saintly cat in a Buddhist monastery who wants to be included in a commissioned painting, truly a strange tale. Link here for a summary.) In spite of poems and stories about cats, she wasn’t a cat lady and said she liked cats just as well as any other animal. She published over 100 books,
In her eighties she wrote something which might offer comfort to all frustrated travelers—
I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.
Here’s stubborn Santa and his cat prints: