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Tongues: 'The Cat', The Carp' & 'The Dromedary'

'The Cat', 'The Carp' and 'The Dromedary'

The translations by Edwin Morgan

'The Cat', 'The Carp' and 'The Dromedary' are translations by Edwin Morgan of three poems by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).

They were published in The Glasgow Herald on Saturday April 30 1955, illustrated by 'Fleming'. They were reprinted, with translations of four other poems from the sequence, in Ian Hamilton Finlay's magazine Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. no. 11 in 1964. The translations have not since been republished.

The originals by Guillaume Apollinaire

The poems are from Apollinaire's Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d'Orphée (The Bestiary or Retinue of Orpheus), first published in 1911, with illustrations by Raoul Dufy. It was included in Apollinaire's 1913 collection Alcools (Alcohols). Six of the poems, including 'Le Dromadaire' and 'La Carpe', were set to music in 1920 by the French composer François Poulenc (1899-1963).


Teaching ideas


The Cat

  • What things does the poet consider necessary to his life?
  • Why do you think the cat is one of these?
  • Given the answer to these questions, describe the sort of person you think the poet is.
  • Look at the rhymes in the poem.
    • Which are full rhymes, and which are half- or near-rhymes?

The Carp

  • What does 'melancholic' mean?
  • Why do you think the carp 'swim out of death's mind'?
  • How do you think the poet feels about the carp?
    • For example, jealous that they live so long – sad that they are so melancholy – glad for them that they live so long?
  • Find out more about carp.
    • Where do they come from?
    • What do they look like?
    • Do they really live for a long time?

The Dromedary

  • Practise saying 'Don Pedro d'Alfaroubeira'.
  • Given his name, where might Don Pedro come from?
  • What is a 'fad'?
  • Which part of the world do dromedaries come from?
  • What are they used for?
  • Look at the rhymes in the poem.
    • Which are full rhymes, and which are half- or near-rhymes?


Each animal has particular qualities. If you had to choose two adjectives for each creature from this list, which would you choose, and why?






The Cat

Think about a house that you'd like to live in, and make some notes about what you would like to find in it.

  • Which animal would live there?
  • Think about the people you'd like to be there.
  • Think about some objects you'd like to be there.

Start your poem with the first line of 'The Cat'.

  • Then write three lines about your house, based on your notes.
  • Finish your poem with the last line of 'The Cat'.

The Dromedary

Rewrite 'The dromedary' with another character and another creature.

  • Instead of 'Don Pedro d'Alfaroubeira', find or make up another unusual or extravagant name. [i]
  • Instead of 'four dromedaries', think of a certain number of another sort of creatures, for example 'six tortoises' or 'two labradors'. [ii]
  • Instead of '[riding] round the world for a fad', what does this character do? [iii]

Here is a template for your poem:

[i – person's name] had [ii – number, creature],
[person's name] had,
And s/he [iii – what they did].
The very diversion I'd organise
If I possessed [ii – number, creature].


Choose a creature to write your own poem about.

  • Before you write your poem, make some notes about the animal you have chosen.
    • Think of say three adjectives that describe this creature.
    • Think of say three verbs that describe what this creature does.
    • Where might you find this creature?
    • Does this creature live or work with humans?
  • Think of some words that rhyme on this creature's name.
    • Now write a short rhyming poem (4-5 lines) about this creature.
    • The title of the poem is simply the creature's name.
    • Illustrate your own poem, or swap with someone and illustrate theirs.

Languages (English, French)

Lineation (and omissions)

Before reading the poems in their proper layout, read and discuss these unlineated versions with pupils.

  • Make sure they know what the poems mean, then ask them to decide where they would put the line-breaks.
  • They can do this without further instruction, or they could be told that 'Le Chat' has five lines, and so on.
  • Additionally, pupils could be given the unlineated poems with the definite articles and/or pronouns removed, and asked what these should be, looking them up if they don't know already them.

Le Chat

Je souhaite dans ma maison une femme ayant sa raison, un chat passant parmi les livres, des amis en toute saison sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.

Le Dromadaire

Avec ses quatre dromadaires Don Pedro d'Alfaroubeira courut le monde et l'admira. Il fit ce que je voudrais faire si j'avais quatre dromadaires.

La Carpe

Dans vos viviers, dans vos étangs, carpes, que vous vivez longtemps! Est-ce que la mort vous oublie, poissons de la mélancolie.

A class bestiary

Make a class-list of all the animals pupils know in French.

  • Ask pupils to work in groups (of about four) to compile their own lists.
  • After they have written down all the animals they can (with a preceding definite article), ask them to use a dictionary to find out the French names of say another three animals.
  • Ask the pupils, still in their groups, to choose three or four creatures from their list, and to write down an appropriate adjective to go with each creature's name.
  • Then ask them to write down an appropriate verb for their creatures (with an object if necessary).

Compile a list of all the sentences. Give each group a copy of this list, and ask each group to edit these sentences into a class poem.

The sentences could be arranged in different ways, for example:

  • in groups (verses) of 2, 3 or 4 (lines);
  • alphabetically by name
  • alphabetically by adjective
  • alphabetically by verb
  • by the size (increasing or decreasing) of the creatures.

Groups could be asked to use all the sentences, or to select from them; if there are 20 sentences, groups could be asked to select say ten of them.

Each group can be asked to present their selection, deciding who reads which sentence.

In your group, prepare a presentation of the poem.

  • arrange the voices (who is reading what) – everyone should read at some point, but make sure there is a mix of voices – everything from a solo voice to everyone reading together;
  • think about the tone or emotion for each line – which is the happiest / saddest, quietest / loudest, fastest / slowest, and so on;
  • think about how you are going to position yourselves – standing, sitting, keeping still or moving about (but remember your audience needs to hear the words clearly!).


Make your own translation of one or more of the poems into English.

  • Find out what all the French words mean, and translate line by line.
  • Keep your translation fairly literal.
  • Don't worry about finding rhymes in English (but if you find one easily, don't reject it!)

Compare your translation to Edwin Morgan's versions.

  • Are there any French words he has not translated?
  • Are there any English words he has used which are not a direct translation of the French?
  • Do you think his translations are accurate or inaccurate? Why?

There are lots of other poems in Apollinaire's 'Le Bestiaire'. Try translating one or more of them. You could start with 'La Chenille', 'La Puce' or 'Le Dauphin'.


Cross-curricular links

The poems could also inform work in Sciences (Biology) and Expressive Arts (Art).


Further reading

Morgan has written two original 'bestiaries'. The limericked animal subjects of Tales from Limerick Zoo (Mariscat, 1988) include a Japanese carp and a French-speaking cat. In 'Beasts of Scotland', from Virtual and other realities (Carcanet, 1997) ten creatures from the midge to the golden eagle speak their minds. There are other individual animal poems, such as 'Hyena' in From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973) and the monorhymed 'Skunk' in the anthology for children My Mum's a Punk (Scottish Children's Press, 2002).

  • George Mackay Brown's 'Bestiary' is in his collection The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray, 1989), while animal poems in Scots have been written by J.K. Annand, William Soutar and Hugh MacDiarmid.
  • Morgan's translations of other poems by Apollinaire are in his Collected Translations (Carcanet, 1996) pp.379-381.
  • Robert Garioch's Scots translations of Apollinaire can be found in his Collected Poems (Polygon, 2004).

    Related links


    Resource written by Ken Cockburn, April 2009


    P5-S2 / S3-S6


    Languages (English, French), Sciences (Planet Earth), Expressive arts


    1950s, French, Apollinaire, translation, animals, home, travel, ageing, 1910s