Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

First edition cover

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939) is a collection of whimsical poems by T. S. Eliot about feline psychology and sociology, published by Faber and Faber. It is the basis for the musical Cats.

Eliot wrote the poems in the 1930s, and included them, under his assumed name "Old Possum", in letters to his godchildren. They were collected and published in 1939, with cover illustrations by the author, and quickly re-published in 1940, illustrated in full by Nicolas Bentley. They have also been published in versions illustrated by Edward Gorey (1982) and Axel Scheffler (2009).


The contents of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, along with the names of the featured cats where appropriate, are:


In 1954 the English composer Alan Rawsthorne set six of the poems in a work for speaker and orchestra entitled Practical Cats, which was recorded soon afterwards, with the actor Robert Donat as the speaker. At about the same time another English composer, Humphrey Searle, composed another narrated piece based on the poems, using flute, piccolo, cello and guitar. This work, Two Practical Cats, consists of settings of the poems about Macavity and Growltiger.

The best-known musical adaptation of the poems is Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats, which was premiered in the West End of London in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982. It became the longest-running Broadway show in history until it was beaten by another musical by Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera, and then by Chicago by Kander and Ebb.

As well as the poems in this volume, the musical introduces several additional characters from Eliot's unpublished drafts, most notably Grizabella.

Cultural references

In the film Logan's Run Logan and Jessica meet an old man in the ruins of the United States Senate Chamber during their search for Sanctuary. The Old Man has many cats and refers to the poem "The Naming of Cats", explaining that each cat has three names: one common, one fancy and one that only the cat knows. Later the Old Man refers to one cat in particular, "Gus", short for "Asparagus", and goes on to recite parts of "Macavity: the Mystery Cat".

Comparable work

On June 5, 2009, The Times revealed that in 1937 Eliot had composed a 34-line poem entitled "Cows" for the children of Frank Morley, a friend who, like Eliot, was a director of the publishing company Faber and Faber.[1] Morley's daughter, Susanna Smithson, uncovered the poem as part of the BBC Two programme Arena: T.S. Eliot, broadcast that night as part of the BBC Poetry Season.[2]


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