Smelling a rat


(Harry, student of current affairs, smelling a rat)

I was thinking again about rats, prompted not only by the current political situation, though that possesses strong indicators, but, in the first instance, by seeing a brown rat—not the endangered black rat—shoot across the garden and, on a later occasion, help itself to seeds on the bird table, having shinned up a long, smooth pole to reach it. I invited the cat to deal with the situation (perhaps you know the story of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway out on the town in Paris, where the half-blind Joyce would get into fights, be unable to locate his opponent and simply say ‘Deal with him, Hemingway, deal with him!’)—but Harry showed no inclination to do so. It was not a particularly small rat.

The second instance was my nightly reading to the Librarian, not for the first time, Conan Doyle. Devotees of the Sherlock Holmes stories will recall that, in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, Holmes alludes to the giant rat of Sumatra, ‘a story for which the world is not yet prepared.’ Leslie Klinger notes the discovery made by Guy G. Musser and Cameron Newcomb of a species Sundamys infraluteus, weighing in excess of 22 pounds and 24 inches long (including the tail), a discovery reported in a 270-page article in 1983.

Then too there is ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’:

‘The Coroner: Did your father make any statement to you before he died?
Witness: He mumbled a few words, but I could only catch some allusion to a rat.
The Coroner: What did you understand by that?
Witness: It conveyed no meaning to me. I thought that he was delirious.’

Later, Watson asks Holmes: ‘What of the rat, then?’ His friend produces a map of the Colony of Victoria (he has wired to Bristol for it the previous night).

‘He put his hand over part of the map. “What do you read?”
“ARAT,” I read.
“And now?” He raised his hand.

Aha! That was Charles McCarthy trying to utter the name of his murderer, John Turner, formerly Black Jack of Ballarat. [1]

Rats are affectionately observed or referenced by Colette—‘I have a little Rat [Colette de Jouvenel, otherwise Bel-Gazou, born 3 July 1913], and I have paid the price: thirty hours without respite, chloroform and forceps’[2]—and Kenneth Grahame, whose The Wind in the Willows appeared in 1908, though his rat was a water-vole.


(Paul Bransom, from The Wind in the Willows)

The First World War, specifically life in the trenches on the Western Front, introduced new rat-perspectives, from David Jones:

You can hear the silence of it:
you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow out-earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.[3]

and from Isaac Rosenberg, in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ (‘Only a live thing leaps my hand,/ A queer sardonic rat’).

Rats—and ferrets—bulked fairly large in Ford Madox Ford’s war too. When a French Minister in wartime Paris asked how he could be of use to Second Lieutenant Hueffer, Ford expressed his desire for some ferrets. ‘First of everything in the world—of everything in the whole world!—comes your battalion. And the ferrets of my battalion had all died suddenly; and the last thing they had said to me had been: Don’t forget to get us some ferrets. If you had seen the rats of Locre you would have understood.’ But, he adds, ‘the Minister had not seen the rats of Locre so he had not understood…. ’[4] Closer to the time of that ministerial incomprehension—‘“Quoi,” he asked. “What is a ferret?”’—the Francophile Ford wrote: ‘There are no ferrets in France, not in the Ministries, not in the Jardin des Plantes et d’Acclimatation. That is perhaps a defect of France, but I have perceived no other.’[5]

Another species of entente cordiale had emerged in the sixteenth century, with John Florio’s translation of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell writes: ‘But while Montaigne always moved forward, Florio winds back on himself and scrunches his sentences into ever tighter baroque spirals until their meaning disappears in a puff of syntax. The real magic happens when the two writers meet. Montaigne’s earthiness holds Florio’s convolutions in check, while Florio gives Montaigne an Elizabethan English quality, as well as a lot of sheer fun.’ So, ‘Where Montaigne writes, “Our Germans, drowned in wine” (nos Allemans, noyez dans le vin), Florio has “our carowsing tosspot German souldiers, when they are most plunged in their cups, and as drunke as Rats”’. And, wonderfully, ‘A phrase which the modern translator Donald Frame renders calmly as “werewolves, goblins, and chimeras” emerges from Floriation as “Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-beares and Chimeraes” – a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream.’


(J. W. Waterhouse, Miranda)

And yes, as she goes on to say, Shakespeare did know John Florio, ‘was among the first readers of the Essays translation’ and left strong traces of that reading in several of his plays.[6] Or, if not Montaigne, then rats:

A rotten carcase of a butt, not rigg’d,
Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats
Instinctively have quit it (The Tempest, I, ii)




[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005), II, 556-557; I, 111, 125.

[2] To Georges Wague, mid-July 1913: Colette, Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 36.

[3] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 54.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 133.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, in War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 51. The editor points out in his headnote (49) that the ferrets recur in several other Ford works. The story of ‘Ford’s rat’ is in Joseph Conrad (1924), 40-41.

[6] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 277-279.


Animal to animal


(William Blake’s Tyger)

‘Yes’, William Carlos Williams wrote to Ezra Pound on 14 June 1932, ‘I have wanted to kick myself (as you suggest) for not realizing more about Ford Maddox’s [sic] verse. If he were not so unapproachable, so gone nowadays. I want to but it is not to be done. Also he is too much like my father was – too English for me ever to be able to talk with him animal to animal.’[1]

That phrase would recur more than twenty-five years later, when Williams asked Hugh Kenner whether it might be possible to talk to T. S. Eliot ‘animal to animal’.[2] Ford and Williams became closer in the last year of Ford’s life, when he founded the Friends of William Carlos Williams.[3] Still, animal to animal. . . was there enough common ground for words to mean the same things to both parties? Would each of them even recognise the other’s direction of travel? Were their aims and ideals comparable, perhaps even within touching distance? Could they connect?

Humans and animals, humans as animals, humans becoming animals – it’s a crowded field: Ovid’s transformations, Kipling, Kafka, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox; more recently, the remarkable Sarah Hall: ‘She stops, within calling distance, were he not struck dumb. She looks over her shoulder. Topaz eyes glinting. Scorched face. Vixen.’[4]


We accept we are animals; or no, it’s those others that are animals; some animal traits we see in humans, some human traits in our dogs, cats, horses. ‘Funny buggers the human animals’, David Jones wrote to Tom Burns, while Llewellyn Powys referred to ‘that escaped, brain-mad animal, man’ and, in order to escape the human into a dreamed world, immaterial and eternal, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.[5]

Guy Davenport remarks that, ‘Odysseus declining the stupidities of hallucination and Akhilleus taming the animal within himself end one age of Greece.’ And here is the philosopher George Santayana in a later Davenport story, ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’:

The unexamined life is eminently worth living, were anyone so fortunate. It would be the life of an animal, brave and alert, with instincts instead of opinions and decisions, loyalty to mate and cubs, to the pack. It might, for all we know, be a life of richest interest and happiness. Dogs dream. The quickened spirit of the eagle circling in high cold air is beyond our imagination. The placidity of cattle shames the Stoic, and what critic has the acumen of the cat? We have used the majesty of the lion as a symbol of royalty, the wide-eyed stare of owls for wisdom, the mild beauty of the dove for the spirit of God.[6]


(George Santayana)

Of T. H. White, author of both The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, David Garnett recalled: ‘Tim was not a mere devotee of blood sports, he was a naturalist with a gift for sharing the instincts and prejudices of all the animals he hunted or domesticated. Thus he could really enter into the soul of a hawk, or a fox, or a wild goose, or a badger. His description of Merlin’s education of Arthur in The Sword in the Stone is not a piece of fanciful writing, but full of his own experience.’[7] Patrick White wrote of his character, Miss Hare: ‘Now she recalled with nostalgia occasions when she had lost her identity in those of trees, bushes, inanimate objects, or entered into the minds of animals, of which the desires were unequivocal or honest.’[8] Some ten thousand years before the present, Julia Blackburn writes, ‘A man is preparing to go out hunting. In order to achieve the death of the animal that is to be hunted, he must become the animal. Inhabiting that other body is the first step towards possessing it.’[9]


(Lily James as Natasha in the BBC dramatisation of War and Peace)

That recognised and lived closeness of the worlds of human and animal is certainly an integral part of cultures both ancient and modern. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Natasha speaks of recalling memories until one remembers what happened before one was in the world. ‘“That’s metempsychosis,’ said Sonya, who had always been a good scholar and remembered what she learned. “The Egyptians used to believe that our souls once inhabited the bodies of animals, and will return into animals again.”’ And Carlo Levi, exiled by the Mussolini regime to Gagliano in the Lucania region of Italy, wrote: ‘The deities of the state and the city can find no worshippers here on the land where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below.’[10]


No wall. So near and yet so far away. Reading aloud, animal to animal, I accept the cat as prospective audience – but he keeps his own counsel and, I notice, makes no comment at all.



[1] Pound/ Williams: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, edited by Hugh Witemeyer (New York: New Directions, 1996), 119.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 19.

[3] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 537-538.

[4] Sarah Hall, ‘Mrs Fox’, in Madame Zero (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 9.

[5] Letter of 28 August 1940: Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters, edited by René Hague (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 104; Llewellyn Powys, Ebony and Ivory ([1923] Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 1983), 30; ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, W. B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 240.

[6] Guy Davenport ‘The Dawn of Erewhon’, in Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 200; ‘Dinner at the Bank of England’, in The Cardiff Team: Ten Stories (New York: New Directions, 1996), 13.

[7] David Garnett, The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 176.

[8] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 82.

[9] Julia Blackburn, Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 171.

[10] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 616; Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, translated by Frances Frenaye ([1947] Penguin 2000), 78.