Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

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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.

Elliot 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 reillustrated versions by Edward Gorey (1982) and Axel Scheffler (2009).


The contents of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, along with the name of the featured cat when 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 after, with the actor Robert Donat as the speaker. At about the same time period another English composer, Humphrey Searle, composed another narrator piece based on the poems, using the flute, piccolo, cello and guitar. This work, Two Practical Cats, consisted of settings of the poems of Macavity and Growltiger.

The best-known musical adaptation of the poems is the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. This musical premiered in London's West End in 1981, and on Broadway in 1982, and went on to become the longest-running Broadway show in history, until it was beaten by another Andrew Lloyd Webber show, The Phantom of the Opera.

As well as the poems in this volume, the musical introduces several additional characters from Eliot's unpublished drafts—most notably Grizabella.

Cultural references[edit]

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 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. This cat is called "Gus," short for Asparagus. He then goes on to recite parts of "Macavity: the Mystery Cat".

Comparable work[edit]

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 and a fellow director of the publishing company.[1] Morley's daughter, Susanna Smithson, uncovered the poem as part of the BBC Two's "Arena: T.S. Eliot" broadcast that night as part of the BBC Poetry Season.[2]


  • T.S. Eliot (1982). Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-168656-4. 
  • Larsen, Janet Karsten (1982) "Eliot's Cats Come Out Tonight", Christian Century. May 5, 1982, p. 534.

External links[edit]