A Child’s Nightmare

A Child’s Nightmare

by Robert Graves


A Child's Nightmare (Cat) - from The Cool Web : A Robert Graves Oratorio

Through long nursery nights he stood
By my bed unwearying,
Loomed gigantic, formless, queer,
Purring in my haunted ear
That same hideous nightmare thing,
Talking, as he lapped my blood,
In a voice cruel and flat,
Saying for ever, “Cat! … Cat! … Cat!…”

That one word was all he said,
That one word through all my sleep,
In monotonous mock despair.
Nonsense may be light as air,
But there’s Nonsense that can keep
Horror bristling round the head,
When a voice cruel and flat
Says for ever, “Cat! … Cat! … Cat!…”

He had faded, he was gone
Years ago with Nursery Land,
When he leapt on me again
From the clank of a night train,
Overpowered me foot and head,
Lapped my blood, while on and on
The old voice cruel and flat
Says for ever, “Cat! … Cat! … Cat!…”

Morphia drowsed, again I lay
In a crater by High Wood:
He was there with straddling legs,
Staring eyes as big as eggs,
Purring as he lapped my blood,
His black bulk darkening the day,
With a voice cruel and flat,
“Cat! … Cat! … Cat! … Cat!…” he said, “Cat! … Cat!…”

When I’m shot through heart and head,
And there’s no choice but to die,
The last word I’ll hear, no doubt,
Won’t be “Charge!” or “Bomb them out!”
Nor the stretcher-bearer’s cry,
“Let that body be, he’s dead!”
But a voice cruel and flat
Saying for ever, “Cat! … Cat! … Cat!”


This poem is based on the injuries he sustained during the attack on High Wood. He was wounded, found semi-conscious and taken back to the dressing station where he was laid out on his stretcher and dismissed as dead. A letter was sent home to England announcing his death. When they realised he was still alive, he was put on a hospital train to the coast to be shipped back to England, but the danger of a fatal haemorrhage from the wound in his lung was so great that they dared not lift him into a bunk, so he spent the whole rail journey in agony in an unsupported stretcher he had already spent five days in.

He himself describes this experience within the structure of a nightmare he had as a child, which was perfect for the oratorio, as it enabled us to find a precise way of simultaneously evoking the raw terrors of childhood, the dazed phantasmagoric shellshock as he waited in the shell hole, and the dreadful shaking of the train, and also gave us a sound – the repeated Cat! Cat! Cat! – which conveyed rifle fire and mounting delirium and the racketing of the train simultaneously.

A Child’s Nightmare  takes us from combat and shellshock to the final peace of the last section.