Today it rained. And then rained some more. All day. But by happy coincidence I came across a splendid print by George Cruikshank, dating from 1820, entitled ‘Very Unpleasant Weather – Raining Cats and Dogs and Pitchforks’ and suddenly I feel more cheerful.
I hadn’t heard of raining pitchforks before, but apparently it is one of those idioms which date back centuries. I am told that the French have an equivalent (‘Il pleut des hallebardes’) and the Germans (‘Es regnet Heugabeln’). And of course we also have stair rods which can rain down on us….
The phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ apparently referred at one stage to pole-cats. Wikipedia gives us the phrase ‘It shall rain dogs and polecats’ as emanating from the pen of one Richard Brome, in 1652. A year earlier a poet called Henry Vaughan wrote in his collection of poems ‘Olor Iscanus’ that a roof was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”
One suggestion is that really heavy rain on thatched roofs would wash out the carcasses of old animals which had sneaked into the eaves in search of a quiet place to die. Another suggests a link to a poem entitled ‘A description of a city shower’ written by Jonathan Swift in 1710. Describing the rain flushing out all the detritus from the kennel (in other words, the channel which ran down the centre of the road) the poem ends with these stanzas:
Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
Swift obviously liked the link between heavy rain and dead pets, and used the expression in his 1738 Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in which one of his characters fears that it will “rain cats and dogs.”
‘A heavy slanting downpour composed of cats, dogs, and pitchforks descends on a road filled with pedestrians. An old apple-woman and a porter with a chest inscribed “Glass – keep this side upward” have been thrown to the ground. Pitchforks transfix a kneeling dustman; another pierces the umbrella of a person on which a dog is also seated. A man is pinned to the ground; his wooden leg impales a cat. A barrow-woman shouting “Cats meat, dogs meat!” is beset by dogs and cats. A coach numbered “2072,” with a burlesque coat of arms (a cat and dog for supporters, a cat for a crest) contains two dandies; the roof is covered with animals and pierced by pitchforks. There is a background of houses and landscape; a placard on which a coach and four is depicted is inscribed “Cheap Safe & Expeditious Travelling – Pig & Whistle to the Cow & Snuffers – Winchester Hants.”
As for George Cruikshank he was born in 1792 into a family of illustrators and caricaturists. He went on to become known as ‘the modern Hogarth’ and drew the pictures to illustrate Dickens’s ‘Sketches by Boz’ (1836) and ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838). He was in every sense prolific – he not only married twice but had eleven children by his mistress Adelaide Attree, who had at one stage worked in the Cruikshank household as a servant. Presumably that was not known to the proprietors of Punch Magazine, who wrote an obituary for the old dog when he died in 1878: “There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.”
Meanwhile, it’s nice to know that here in the UK we have been complaining about the weather (too wet, too cold, too hot, too much of it …. whatever) for hundreds of years. Long may it continue.