Rat Catcher to His Rats

Collection of the British National Media Museum
(photographer unknown)

You lady’s purses, you tack-toed
wallops of white silk, you grim grins,
I have you on my string as good
as legal tender for my room & board
at any inn, my dog & I
welcome there only so long
as you are not, my beauties—
& so we’re tied together in a way.
This broad-brimmed hat wards off
two kinds of yellow, sun & scorn.
How dare we subsist on the hard-
won crumbs of brutes!
But the trap is a good teacher.
Somewhere you must have
your own canny king, making free
with all the best morsels of dark
& swarming nations.

13 Replies to “Rat Catcher to His Rats”

    1. It’s true in the sense that it’s part of the rat catcher’s truth. Beyond that, I don’t know. Unless we are all rats, which at times I’m tempted to believe. Thanks for the comment.

  1. My rat terrier and I love this poem.
    “at any inn, my dog & I
    welcome there only so long
    as you are not, my beauties—”

    This line in particular . . . tells a story in only a few words.

    1. Hi Liza – I’m glad this spoke to you as a terrier owner. I actually had “terrier” in the first draft, but decided I preferred the more general “dog.” (Had I not chosed to post the photo above it, though, I might’ve been less willing to generalize.)

  2. Of course I love the poem… but I’m trying to understand the picture. White rats? I didn’t think they really existed (except as rarely as an albino) outside the lab. And what is on the dog’s coat? Looks like notes tied to him with ribbons. And those rats look alive… what is the dog thinking? I don’t understand it, but I want to.

    1. It is mysterious — I wondered about that stuff, too. And is that a book or a box he’s holding? It all adds to the fascination of the photo, though.

    2. Hmm. Maybe the guy in the photo was a rat dealer, not a rat catcher. I just found this:

      Mary Douglas (the mother of the rat fancy) once stated that Albino rats were introduced to great Britain by a traveling entertainer around the year 1800. In Victorian times, wild rats were caught in huge numbers for the “rat pits” that were popular at the time. Between the 1840s and 1860s some of these rats were kept, bred, and sold as pets. Pink-Eyed Whites were among them. In 1908 Beatrix Potter published her book “Samuel Whiskers” (a story about a wild rat and his wife). She dedicated it to the Albino rat which was a favorite pet when she was a child.

      1. Googling further, it seems that the popularity of rat baiting in Victorian England meant that rat catchers captured rats alive and sold them to breeders.

        Good thing I didn’t do any of this research before writing the poem — it would’ve ended up twice as long!

  3. I often find that too much knowledge can be death to the writing of a poem. And I think I liked the picture better when it was a rat killer, not a rat seller! I understand that a bull terrier holds the record for killing the most rats in the shortest time: 500 in 28 minutes.

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