The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear

‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ is categorized as a nonsense, or nonce, poem. This type of poetry is focused more on sound, the joy of words, and rhythm than it is on a cohesive story or the clear representation of an emotional state. Nonsense poems are often amusing and whimsical, employing magical imagery or personification. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is the most popular example of a nonce poem. 

Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ was published in 1871 and included in his book Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets. His own personal records indicate that he wrote the poem for the three-year-old daughter of a friend. Within the poem, the poet delves into themes of love, affection, and joy. 

 

Summary of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Edward Lear is a simple, joy-filled poem that tells the marriage story of an owl and a cat. 

This nonsense poem starts with the boat journey of the two main characters named in the title. They profess their love to one another and decide to get married. They need to find a ring and their search takes them to a pig. That pig sells them its nose ring for one shilling and they get married. After that, there is much celebrating and the poem ends with the owl and pussy-cat dancing under the moon. 

 

Structure of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Edward Lear is a three-stanza poem that’s divided into sets of eleven lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEDEEEE, shifting slightly in the second and third stanzas. Lear also makes use of half-rhyme and internal rhyme. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme,  is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. 

 

Poetic Techniques in The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

Lear makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’. These include alliteration, symbolism, metaphor, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter.  Alliteration has the ability to increase the musicality of lines. This is something that’s quite important in nonce poetry. For example, in lines seven and eight of the first stanza. They read “O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, / What a beautiful Pussy you are”.

The fantastical elements of this genre of poetry are quite important, as is symbolism. The two collide throughout ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ several times, as can be seen in otherworldly elements like the “Bong-Tree”. 

Personification is combined with metaphor as the owl and cat are compared to human beings. They are given human character traits and the ability to engage in human activities. They represent human beings but seen from a different perspective. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one and two of the first and third stanzas.

 

Analysis of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

Stanza One 

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, 

You are, 

You are! 

What a beautiful Pussy you are!” 

In the first stanza of ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ the speaker describes the actions and adventures of an owl and a pussy-cat. The two travel out to sea in a “beautiful pea-green boat,” a symbol for their happiness together. They took everything they needed with them, “honey, and plenty of money”. The internal rhyme in these lines is quite effective. It is employed numerous times throughout the text. 

The personification of these animals is not addressed, instead, it is taken as natural that the owl can sing and play guitar. He sings to the cat, using alliteration and repetition to praise her beauty. The mood in these lines is peaceful and joyous. 

 

Stanza Two 

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, 

His nose, 

His nose, 

With a ring at the end of his nose. 

In the second stanza of The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, the cat responds just as complimentarily to the owl. The cat calls the owl an “elegant fowl” and declares that they should stop wasting time and be married. Next, there is the question of the ring and where they’re going to get one. In their search, they sailed for an extended period of time. Finally, they got to an even more fantastical world in which there are “Bong-Tree[s]” and a pig that has a ring at the end of his nose. The phrase “nose” is repeated in order to mimic the musical rhymes at the end of the first stanza. 

 

Stanza Three 

“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, 

The moon, 

The moon, 

They danced by the light of the moon.

In the last lines of ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ the owl asks the pig to sell the couple the ring in its nose for “one shilling”. The pig immediately agrees and the couple got married. They celebrated afterward with a big meal, each getting something they wanted. They used a “runcible spoon”. Today, the word “runcible” is used to refer to a spork but when it was coined by Lear he did not give it a specific definition and often used the adjective in different ways. 

In the last lines, Lear returns to the musical ending that punctuated the first two stanzas. “The moon” is repeated this time. The poet sought to emphasize the joy the couple felt as they danced.

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