Early editions of William Cowper’s collected works included a brief “Memorandum Found among Mr. Cowper’s Papers.” It bears today’s date, March 9, in 1786, and reads in toto: “This day died poor Puss, aged eleven years eleven months. He died between twelve and one at noon of mere old age, and apparently without pain.”
Cowper’s nature was feverishly empathetic. The suffering of others--friends, family, animals--often felt more real to him than his own, which was seldom negligible. Despite the name, Puss is a leveret, a young hare, not a cat. The name suggests a domesticity and fondness not shared with every rabbit keeper. Cowper acquired his first hare in 1774, shortly after his release from fifteen months in the insane asylum. He was pleased, he tells us in a prose piece published in 1784 in Gentleman’s Magazine, to have “any thing that would engage my attention without fatiguing it.... in the management of such an animal, and in the attempt to tame it, I should find just that sort of employment which my case required.” He eventually acquitted three hares – Puss, Tiney and Bess.
For Puss he wrote, in Latin, “Epitaphium Alterum.” In the prose piece he writes of Puss: “Finding him extremely tractable, I made it my custom to carry him always after breakfast into the garden, where he hid himself generally under the leaves of a cucumber vine, sleeping or chewing the cud till evening; in the leaves also of that vine he found a favourite repast.” His hares had additional non-human company. Cowper kept five rabbits, two guinea pigs, a magpie, a jay, a starling, a linnet, two goldfinches, two canaries, two dogs and sixteen pigeons. One is impressed by Cowper’s realism about animals. He doesn’t romanticize and could in no sense be described as a do-gooder seeking praise for his thoughtfulness and charity. One of Cowper’s finest poems, “Epitaph for a Hare” (1784) was written for Tiney. Here is the conclusion:
“But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.
“He, still more aged, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
Must soon partake his grave.”
Nice to know the House Rabbit Society devotes a page to Cowper on its website, apparently the only poet so honored.