Dr Oliver Tearle’s reading of one of nonsense literature’s best-loved poems
‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ is probably Edward Lear’s most famous poem, and a fine example of Victorian nonsense verse. But can one really analyse nonsense literature, or subject it to critical scrutiny? After all, the very name implies that it’s not supposed to make ‘sense’. Yet whenever a poem attains iconic status, it’s worth discussing how it has earned that status.
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.
‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ was published in Lear’s 1871 collection Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets. The poem, in summary, tells of the love between the owl and the pussycat and their subsequent marriage, with the turkey presiding over the wedding. They obtain the wedding ring from a pig, who sells them his for a shilling.
It’s well known that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the daughter of a friend, Alice Liddell (or, more accurately, he told to Alice the story that later became the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). But what is not so well known is that Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for a friend’s daughter, Janet Symonds, who was born in 1865 and was three years old when Lear wrote the poem. Janet was the daughter of none other than John Addington Symonds (1840-93), who, although married with children, was a pioneering poet of male homosexual love and desire.
Talking of gender, which is male and which female out of the owl and the pussycat? Are they both the same gender? Biographers have speculated over Edward Lear’s sexuality, after all. But we actually have a firm answer, supplied by Lear himself: in the little-known sequel he wrote to the poem, it is revealed that the owl is male and the pussycat female.
The word ‘runcible’ was a coinage of Edward Lear’s for this poem, and is up there with Lewis Carroll’s coining of ‘chortled’ and ‘galumphing’ in his poem ‘Jabberwocky’. Yet nobody is sure what ‘runcible’ actually means. (It’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as simply ‘A nonsense word originally used by Edward Lear’.) Lear didn’t help matters: as well as applying the word to a spoon, he went on to use ‘runcible’ to describe his hat, a wall, and even his cat.
But this all still leaves us with the question: is ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ meant to mean anything? Is it simply delightful fantasy (it features anthropomorphic animals, after all: the owl and the pussycat can talk, the owl sings a song and plays the guitar, the pig engages in financial transactions, and the turkey officiates at ceremonies), or is it making a commentary on Victorian society?
Many critics have interpreted the nonsense verse of both Lear and Lewis Carroll in this way, seeing it as a partial subversion of Victorian norms and mores, albeit with the status quo often being restored (we can see this in Lear’s limericks: those who behave oddly and step outside of Victorian convention are often punished). Are the owl and the pussycat eloping, hence the going to sea in a boat? Why do they pack up money within money? (‘They took … plenty of money, / Wrapped up in a five-pound note’.) Is this because they are running away to be married? Should we read anything into the fact that they have to sail the seas for a year and a day, travelling to the land of the Bong-Tree, in order to get a ring? Are such questions even sensible to ask?
The usual rules of literary analysis don’t seem to apply with nonsense literature. We’re clearly in a fantasy world here, and should perhaps simply enjoy the delicious use of language, rhyme, and imagery.
And the charming language and imagery of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ continue to appeal to readers, both young and old. In 1995, it was voted Britain’s 45th favourite poem, and in 2014 it was voted the nation’s favourite childhood poem.
Discover more about classic nonsense verse with our commentary on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, our summary of his ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, and our pick of Lewis Carroll’s best nonsense poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.