Gelett Burgess

The Purple Cow by Gelett Burgess

‘The Purple Cow’ by Gelett Burgess is a funny short poem. In it, the speaker declares his opinion about seeing and/or being a purple cow.

This poem is characteristic of much of Burgess’ writing. He’s known for his short, four-line poems that address a humorous topic. These are written with young readers in mind, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed by a wide audience. His skill with rhymes (end rhymes and internal rhymes) helps these poems remain as effective as they are. This is especially true of ‘The Purple Cow.’

The Purple Cow
Gelett Burgess

I never saw a Purple Cow, I never hope to see one, But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one!
The Purple Cow by Gelett Burgess


‘The Purple Cow’ by Gelett Burgess is a short and humorous poem about a speaker’s opinion on a purple cow.

The speaker begins this poem by noting that they’ve never seen a purple cow. This should strike readers as funny as no one has ever seen such a creature. But, by noting it, the reader can’t help but imagine it. The speaker goes on to say that even if he could see one, he wouldn’t want to. This suggests that he finds the image less entertaining and more disturbing. Finally, the poem concludes with the speaker saying that despite his aversion to seeing the cow, he’d rather see it than be it. 

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-2

I never saw a Purple Cow,

I never hope to see one,

In the first two lines of ‘The Purple Cow,’ the speaker begins with a simple statement. They say that they’ve never seen “a Purple Cow.” This nonsense image is perfectly suited for this children’s poem and should entertain and surprise those reading it. It’s easy to imagine young readers giggling at the idea of such a creature. 

To add to the humor, not only does the speaker have no history with purple cows, he hopes that he never sees one. With this line, young readers are likely to have different responses. It’s likely that some will agree, and some will disagree. It could be entertaining to some young readers to imagine seeing a purple cow, while others might find it as weird and disturbing as the narrator seems to.

Readers should also take note of the use of anaphora in these lines. Both begin with the same phrase, “I never.” This is quite impactful considering that the poem is only four lines long. 

Lines 3-4 

But I can tell you, anyhow,

I’d rather see than be one!

In the third line, the speaker goes on to say that he may never have seen a purple cow and may not want to see one, but he does know one thing. He’d rather see one than be one. The perfect internal rhyme of “see” and “be” in the final line is very impactful to the overall rhythm and flow of the poem. It helps end the short quatrain on a light-hearted and humorous note. 

Readers should also consider the speaker’s conversational tone in these lines. Although he’s never seen a purple cow, his tone doesn’t convey the strange nature of such a sight. It’s very conversational and relaxed. 

Structure and Form 

‘The Purple Cow’ by Gelett Burgess is a four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB. This consistent and easy-to-find pattern fits perfectly with the very direct and basic language used throughout the lines. Burgess only uses words that young readers could understand and creates a punchline that’s also quite accessible. The use of the purple cow, a clearly nonsensical image, is also suited to the poem. Readers who are familiar with Burgess’ other poems won’t be surprised by his use of a quatrain here. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout ‘The Purple Cow,’ the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “But I can tell you, anyhow.” This can be done through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter
  • Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I never” which begins lines one and two.
  • Epistrophe: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the end of multiple lines. For example, “one” which ends lines two and three. This is even more effective considering how short the poem is. 


Who is the speaker in ‘The Purple Cow?’ 

The speaker is unknown. They’re someone who wants to entertain, has a strong opinion, and has never seen a purple cow. Besides this, there is no information about who they are. Generally, when a man writes a poem, the speaker is assumed to also be a man though.

How does the poet use repetition in ‘The Purple Cow?’ 

The poet uses repetition in the structure of the lines as well as in the use of words at the beginning and end of them. “I never” is an example of anaphora, and “one” is an example of epistrophe. These techniques are common within children’s poetry.

What is the mood of ‘The Purple Cow?’ 

The mood is upbeat and entertaining. The readers are meant to walk away from this poem, smiling and enjoying the images they were just exposed to. 

What is the tone of ‘The Purple Cow?’ 

The tone is conversational and relaxed. The use of the word “anyhow” in the third line makes this very clear. It’s easy to imagine someone speaking these lines. That is, despite the strange subject matter

What is the purpose of ‘The Purple Cow?’ 

The purpose is to entertain. This is one of several quatrain poems Burgess wrote that were meant for young readers. Others also take a similar tone and are meant to make readers laugh or at least smile and the images he creates. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Purple Cow’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example: 

  • The Pigby Ogden Nash – a short four-line poem that humorously talks about the pig.
  • The Duckby Ogden Nash – a short eight-line poem that humorously talks about the duck and its sound.
  • A Butterfly Talksby Annette Wynne – a children’s poem written by the American poet Annette Wynne. In this short poem, the poet emphasizes the splendor of simple things in nature.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap