The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
by Edward Lear, 1812-1888
What is a poem? As so often in the world of creative endeavor, there is no clear boundary line dividing poetry from prose. The one thing shades off into the other across the border territories of free verse and rhythmic prose (which are really the same thing, except typographically.)
If pressed to say when a literary production can definitely be called a poem, I would insist that it meet a minimum two of the following three criteria:
- It has rhyme.
- It has meter.
- It makes sense.
That opens the door to nonsense poetry, which I rather like. Many people don't. I know highly literate people who wince and groan at the very mention of nonsense verse. I cannot help them; there is no accounting for taste (although there may, as a witty friend observed when I said that out loud once, be bookkeeping).
This is one of the two best-known nonsense poems in English, the other being Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky." It first appeared in print in 1871 when the poet was 59, so presumably it was written in his late fifties.
The reader here is the great English actor Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000). I have taken the reading from Classic FM One Hundred Favorite Poems, first published in 1997.
You see typographical variations in the printings of this poem, e.g. "Pussycat" for "Pussy-Cat." I have followed the version printed in The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 chosen and edited by Helen Gardner (OUP, 1972).
"a five-pound note" — This brings to my mind the big old black-and-white five-pound notes that I occasionally — very occasionally — saw in my childhood. That's anachronistic, but only slightly. The "white fiver" I remember was in line of descent from banknotes issued since 1793 in very similar formats. Until 1921 this included private bank issues, i.e. with the name of a particular bank printed at the top. The modern (smaller, colored) five-pound note took over in 1957; "white fivers" ceased to be legal tender in 1961.
"runcible" — Most of Lear's nonsense words are obvious nonsense. There is, for instance, no such thing as a Bong tree. The word "runcible," however, looks as though it means something. It doesn't, though; it's just another of Lear's inventions.
"They danced by the light of the moon" — These closing lines somehow lift the whole poem up above its essential silliness into the realm of true verse. Gielgud expresses this transfiguration very well in his reading.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
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.