'Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat' by T.S. Eliot

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Old Possum's Book of Practical CatsThere's a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail's ready to depart,
Saying "Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can't start."
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster's daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying "Skimble where is Skimble for unless he's very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can't go."
At 11.42 then the signal's nearly due
And the passengers are frantic to a man-
Then Skimble will appear and he'll saunter to the rear:
He's been busy in the luggage van!He gives one flash of his glass-green eyes
And the signal goes "All Clear!"
And we're off at last for the northern part
Of the Northern Hemisphere!You may say that by and large it is Skimble who's in charge
Of the Sleeping Car Express.
From the driver and the guards to the bagmen playing cards
He will supervise them all, more or less.
Down the corridor he paces and examines all the faces
Of the travellers in the First and the Third;
He establishes control by a regular patrol
And he'd know at once if anything occurred.
He will watch you without winking and he sees what you are thinking
And it's certain that he doesn't approve
Of hilarity and riot, so the folk are very quiet
When Skimble is about and on the move.
You can play no pranks with Skimbleshanks!
He's a Cat that cannot be ignored;
So nothing goes wrong on the Northern Mail
When Skimbleshanks is aboard.Oh, it's very pleasant when you have found your little den
With your name written up on the door.
And the berth is very neat with a newly folded sheet
And there's not a speck of dust on the floor.
There is every sort of light-you can make it dark or bright;
There's a handle that you turn to make a breeze.
There's a funny little basin you're supposed to wash your face in
And a crank to shut the window if you sneeze.
Then the guard looks in politely and will ask you very brightly
"Do you like your morning tea weak or strong?"
But Skimble's just behind him and was ready to remind him,
For Skimble won't let anything go wrong.
And when you creep into your cosy berth
And pull up the counterpane,
You ought to reflect that it's very nice
To know that you won't be bothered by mice-
You can leave all that to the Railway Cat,
The Cat of the Railway Train!In the watches of the night he is always fresh and bright;
Every now and then he has a cup of tea
With perhaps a drop of Scotch while he's keeping on the watch,
Only stopping here and there to catch a flea.
You were fast asleep at Crewe and so you never knew
That he was walking up and down the station;
You were sleeping all the while he was busy at Carlisle,
Where he greets the stationmaster with elation.
But you saw him at Dumfries, where he speaks to the police
If there's anything they ought to know about:
When you get to Gallowgate there you do not have to wait-
For Skimbleshanks will help you to get out!
He gives you a wave of his long brown tail
Which says: "I'll see you again!
You'll meet without fail on the Midnight Mail
The Cat of the Railway Train."

Editor 1 Interpretation

Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat by T.S. Eliot

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a cat? A cat with a job? A cat that works on a train and keeps it running smoothly? Well, wonder no more. In T.S. Eliot's classic poem, "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat," we get a glimpse into the life of a feline that is not only skilled but also indispensable.

Background Information

Before we dive into the poem, let's take a moment to understand its context. T.S. Eliot was a renowned poet, playwright, and critic of the 20th century. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, but later moved to England where he lived for most of his life. Eliot's most famous works include "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Waste Land," and "Four Quartets." However, he is also known for his collection of poems, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," which inspired the hit musical, "Cats."

"Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat" is one of the poems in "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The book was originally published in 1939 and included whimsical poems about different cats and their daily lives. In "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat," Eliot introduces us to a cat that works on a train and is responsible for keeping it running smoothly.

The Poem

The poem begins with a description of Skimbleshanks, the cat in question. Eliot writes:

There's a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail's ready to depart,
Saying "Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can't start."

From the very beginning, we can tell that Skimbleshanks is a cat that is highly valued by his colleagues. They are desperately searching for him because they know that without him, the train cannot depart. This sets the tone for the rest of the poem: Skimbleshanks is not just any cat, he is an essential part of the train's operation.

The poem goes on to describe Skimbleshanks' daily routine. He wakes up early in the morning and gets ready for work, just like any human would. Eliot writes:

He's the Cat that won't cop out
When there's mice about
He's the Cat that knows where it's at
And when he pulls out his watch from his waist
It tells him it's time for his tea and his bath.

Here, Eliot is showcasing Skimbleshanks' skills as a hunter. He is not just a cat that lounges around all day, but one that actively seeks out mice and keeps them at bay. Additionally, we see that Skimbleshanks has a strict routine that he follows, which is a testament to his strong work ethic.

As the poem progresses, we learn more about Skimbleshanks' job on the train. He is responsible for a variety of tasks, including:

Eliot writes:

He can play games with the passengers
And if you look for a moment into his eyes
You'll see that he's also a diplomat
Firm but kind with his fellow cats.

Here, we see that Skimbleshanks is not just a skilled worker but also a social creature. He is able to interact with the passengers and other cats on the train in a friendly and diplomatic manner. This makes him not only an efficient worker but also a likable character.

The poem comes to a close with a final description of Skimbleshanks' importance to the train. Eliot writes:

You may say that by and large it is Skimble
Who's keeping the train on the rails
Specially in time of the G.M.T.
He gives you a wave of his long brown tail.

Here, Eliot is emphasizing that without Skimbleshanks, the train would not be able to function properly. He is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the train running smoothly. Additionally, the final line of the poem, "He gives you a wave of his long brown tail," reinforces Skimbleshanks' friendly and outgoing personality.


So, what can we take away from "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat?" At its core, the poem is a celebration of working-class values. Skimbleshanks embodies the ideals of hard work, loyalty, and responsibility that are often associated with the working class. Despite being a cat, he takes his job seriously and is committed to ensuring that the train runs smoothly. This message is particularly resonant given the economic and social upheavals of the time in which the poem was written.

However, the poem is also an exploration of the relationship between humans and animals. Skimbleshanks is not just any cat, he is a cat that works alongside humans and is valued by them. This blurring of the lines between human and animal can be seen as a commentary on the complexities of our relationship with the natural world. Skimbleshanks is not a wild animal that humans are trying to control, but rather a domesticated animal that has found a place in human society.


"Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat" is a charming and whimsical poem that celebrates the values of the working class and explores the complex relationship between humans and animals. It is a testament to T.S. Eliot's skill as a writer that he is able to make us care about a cat that is not only fictional but also has a job on a train. Ultimately, the poem reminds us that even the most mundane aspects of our lives can be sources of wonder and inspiration if we approach them with an open mind and a sense of curiosity.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat - A Classic Masterpiece by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot's Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat is a classic masterpiece that has captured the hearts of readers for generations. This poem is a part of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a collection of whimsical poems that explore the lives and personalities of cats. Skimbleshanks, the titular character, is a railway cat who keeps the trains running on time. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of this poem, and why it has become a beloved classic.


One of the central themes of Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat is the importance of routine and order. Skimbleshanks is a cat who takes his job very seriously, and he ensures that the trains run on time by keeping a strict schedule. Eliot emphasizes the importance of routine by repeating the phrase "at every station" throughout the poem. This repetition creates a sense of order and stability, which is essential for the smooth running of the railway.

Another theme that is explored in this poem is the idea of teamwork. Skimbleshanks is not the only cat who works on the railway; there are also the driver, the guard, and the shunter. Each cat has a specific role to play, and they work together to ensure that the trains run smoothly. Eliot celebrates the importance of teamwork by describing how the cats "all know their duties" and work together "like a team of horses."


Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat is written in free verse, which means that it does not follow a strict rhyme or meter. However, Eliot does use repetition and rhythm to create a sense of order and structure. The poem is divided into six stanzas, each of which describes a different aspect of Skimbleshanks' job. The repetition of the phrase "at every station" at the beginning of each stanza creates a sense of rhythm and order, which reflects the routine of Skimbleshanks' job.


Eliot's use of language in Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat is playful and whimsical, which reflects the lighthearted nature of the poem. He uses a variety of poetic techniques, such as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia, to create a sense of fun and playfulness. For example, in the first stanza, he describes how Skimbleshanks "keeps the timetables in order" and "mops up the spills in the corridor." The repetition of the "k" sound in "keeps" and "timetables" and the "p" sound in "spills" and "corridor" creates a sense of rhythm and playfulness.

Eliot also uses imagery to bring Skimbleshanks and the railway to life. He describes how Skimbleshanks "rides on the foot-plate" and "watches the trucks" as they "rattle through the station." This imagery creates a vivid picture in the reader's mind and helps to bring the poem to life.

Why it has become a beloved classic

Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat has become a beloved classic because it captures the playful and whimsical nature of cats. Eliot's use of language and imagery creates a vivid picture of Skimbleshanks and the railway, which is both entertaining and engaging. The poem also celebrates the importance of routine and teamwork, which are essential for the smooth running of any organization.

In addition, the poem has been adapted into a popular musical, Cats, which has introduced the poem to a new generation of readers and viewers. The musical has brought the characters of Skimbleshanks and the other railway cats to life, and has helped to cement their place in popular culture.


In conclusion, Poetry Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat is a classic masterpiece that has captured the hearts of readers for generations. Eliot's playful and whimsical language, combined with his use of repetition and imagery, creates a vivid picture of Skimbleshanks and the railway. The poem celebrates the importance of routine and teamwork, which are essential for the smooth running of any organization. It is no wonder that this poem has become a beloved classic, and will continue to be enjoyed by readers for generations to come.

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