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Poem of the Month: Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”
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Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”

                    I.
              1  The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
              2    In a beautiful pea-green boat:
              3  They took some honey, and plenty of money
              4    Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
              5  The Owl looked up to the stars above,
              6    And sang to a small guitar,
              7  “O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
              8    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
              9      You are,
            10      You are!
            11    What a beautiful Pussy you are!
                   II.
            12  Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
            13    How charmingly sweet you sing!
            14  Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
            15    But what shall we do for a ring?”
            16  They sailed away, for a year and a day,
            17    To the land where the bong-tree grows;
            18  And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
            19    With a ring at the end of his nose,
            20      His nose,
            21      His nose,
            22    With a ring at the end of his nose.
                     III.
            23  “Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
            24    Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
            25  So they took it away, and were married next day
            26    By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
            27  They dined on mince and slices of quince,
            28    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
            29  And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
            30    They danced by the light of the moon,
            31      The moon,
            32      The moon,
            33    They danced by the light of the moon.

Edward Lear, illustration for The Owl and the Pussycat (wikimedia commons)

In advance of Lear’s bicentenary on 12 May this year, we give one of his best-loved poems the honour of the poem of the month for February. But what to make of Edward Lear’s charming poem, first published in Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets in 1871, and its hold on British culture? The poem has been a favourite of anthologies of nonsense poetry and children’s verse, and there is even an unfinished manuscript sequel by Lear entitled “The Children of the Owl and the Pussy-cat”. There have been many retellings of the poem, in musical settings, illustrations, and animations, and versions of the narrative has been recast for other children’s books. I see echoes of this poem whenever I read my children one of their other favourite books, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

The poem may be nonsense, but its engagement with Victorian conventions of middle-class courtship and marriage through anthropomorphism is parodic. His humour reminds us, as Roderick McGillis notes, that the Victorians were as much known for their anxiety, earnestness, and doubt, as their playfulness, games and comedy (p. 151). Indeed, the two modes are an artificial opposition. Much has been made by critics of the meanings beneath the nonsense, in this poem as with Lear’s more raucous limericks. For McGillis, nonsense “is a poetry both meaningless and meaningful, silly and serious, detached and engaged, timely and timeless” (p. 163). “The Owl and the Pussycat”, indeed, invites ideological readings of Victorian gender, colonialism, and economics. But it also frustrates such readings with its self-conscious nonsensical meanings. Lear himself declared that reading politics in his poetry was simply “bosh” (cited McGillis, p. 161), but Lear’s poetry has its proverbial cake and eats it too. Even in its nonsense, the poem can’t avoid a parodic dig at Victorian literary codes. The poem privileges sounds above sense, such as the delicious neologism of “runcible spoon”, which roundly rolls off the tongue, and the lyrical pause in the last four lines, when the poem gently stalls on the “e” rhyme (“are”, “nose”, “moon”), producing those two short lines that sound like an incantation. But here the poem presses parodically on the high literary pretension of the lyricism — after all, the middle stanza rests its incantatory attention on the nose of the “Piggy-wig”. Flirting with meaning is what Lear does best, and the poem’s humorous charms are irresistible.
Works Cited
Roderick McGillis, “Nonsense”, in Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman and Antony H. Harrison (eds.), A Companion to Victorian Poetry (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 154-69.

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Poem of the Month: Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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