What is the meaning of this absurd poem? This is a question that comes to the mind of the most of teachers and learners at the school while reading the poem 'Skimbleshanks The Railway cat by T.S Eliot. It is a natural response of any one when he tries to catch the message of a literary piece easily by the shortest way.
Nice. The first thing we can do for understanding the basic idea of the poem is to see it as a simple entertaining rhyme. Forget that T.S Eliot was the greatest philosopher-poet who wrote the heavy 'Waste Land'. Here he is a simple minded traveller who observed the movement of a cat in a railway carriage. Let's take it easy that he wrote the poem based on this silly experience. In this poem, TS Elliot describes the cat (Skimbleshanks) as a normal human person.
Now we start the journey with the poet at the railway station. The Night Mail is ready to start. But it seems that everybody is restless and their murmuring and confused movements give us a feeling that they are waiting for some one to give a “green signal” for the journey. At last when it was 11.42 we see Skimble coming out of the luggage van and the signal goes “All Clear”. The train is set for the North.
Throughout the journey whenever you open your eyes or wherever the train stops you can see the cat somewhere on the train or out on the platform. The cat's presence makes an impression that he is in charge of the train. The poet presents the cat as the most important one on the train. He is attributed with the roles of a supervisor, stationmaster's friend or a patrolling police officer. He is present at the bagmen playing cards, he roams in the first class as well as the third class. He examines every passenger and we may feel that he never aproves of any riot. Naturally the passengers are quiet at night and it leaves an impression that he is responsible for such a calm atmosphere.
While you are going to your bed in your cabin you see the cat behind the guard. It may indicate that it is he who made the guard to ask your preference of weak or strong tea in the morning. Even when you sleep peacefully the cat continues its 'rounds' on the train. The poet makes witty comments on the cat's habit of drinking scotch whisky to make his night watch more vigilant. At every station the cat gets out of the train and refresh himself. In the morning whe you reach your station you can see Skimble in front of you bidding good bye to you. He gives you a wave of his long brown tail and tells you “ I'll see you again!”.
This is the substance of the poem. In other words, the poet describes the importance and significance of Skimbleshanks and presents him as the most important passenger aboard the train. Eliot portrays how the cat caters to the needs of the passengers and the general security of the train.
Now if you want to interpret the poem at a higher intellectual level you are free to do so. In the light of the political situations in Europe at the time of writing this poem, one critic may see the cat as the supervisor who sees everything that everyone does. The cat can be then depicted as a dictator who controls everything in his country. "He will watch everywhere in the train and he sees what you are thinking."
The cat can be a mysterious character who is funny or silly in appearance but serious in behaviour.