The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
In 1871 Edward Lear published a volume called Nonsense Songs which contained this much loved poem. He had written it in 1867 for 3 year old Janet Symonds, child of his friend John Addington Symonds. It is a simple poem, including made up words such as ‘runcible’ and ‘bong-tree’, about four animals and the love and marriage of two of them. The poem became Lear’s most popular poem and has attained iconic status. It was voted Britain’s favourite childhood poem in 2014, and Britain’s 45th favourite poem in 1995.
It is a ‘nonsense’ poem, so should we even try to analyse it? Lear was probably homosexual. His friend John Addington Symonds, although married, was a poet who explored homosexual desire. Does Lear deliberately make the genders of the animals vague? Most readers assume the cat is female because it is described as “beautiful”, and yet it is the cat who does the proposing, something that was definitely a male job in Victorian society. Lear did like to write of those who stepped outside convention or broke the rules. Are the owl and the cat eloping? Why have they wrapped money up inside money, and what is the significance of sailing for a year and a day? Both bird and cat are night hunters and in real life a cat would try to eat an owl, not dance with it in the moonlight. Do we need answers to these questions, or should we simply enjoy the fabulous imagery, language and seductive fantasy of it all?
Lear has structured his poem with great care. Its rhythm is hypnotic, there is a careful choice of sounds (eg, the plosive p sound in pussy, pea, plenty, pound is like the plucking of the guitar strings), and there are rhymes within lines (honey / money, owl / fowl) and at the ends of lines, like a sub-refrain in the poem. The words are short and easy for children, yet there is the odd nonsense word to challenge them and stimulate the imagination. It is designed to appeal to a child’s love of adventure and a liking for animals.
Did you know that the poem had a sequel, published after Lear’s death? It is The Children of the Owl and the Pussycat and reveals that the owl is male and the cat female, and their children are part fowl and part cat, and love eating mice.
The poem has entered popular culture in many ways – it has been set to music (by Stravinsky to name just one), cartooned, filmed, translated, illustrated, prequelled and sequelled. Eric Idle of Monty Python fame wrote a sequel showing the owl and cat defending their mince pies from a horde of rats. There is an excellent new biography, published last year, of Edward Lear – Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow.
There are many videos devoted to The Owl and the Pussycat. Here are just two, an animation from 1934 and a choral version:
I have always wanted to sail away in a pea-green boat (though one day in it would be quite enough). And I’d need a bit more than just honey to eat. Can you recite this poem by heart? Did you also fall under its spell as a child? Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.
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