A Wise Old Owl

‘A Wise Old Owl’ is an English nursery rhyme. It depicts the qualities an owl has that make him wise and worthy of admiration.

The earliest record of the nursery rhyme dates to 1875, but it’s likely that its history stretches to the early 1800s. It’s thought that the rhyme is an improvement on another phrase, “There was an owl lived in an owl, wisky, wasky, weedle.” The owl as a traditional symbol of wisdom is a very recognizable element of this poem.

Interestingly, during World War II, the United States Army used an owl image, with the quote “silence means security” and “Soldier…be like that old bird!” on posters. This suggests that the nursery rhyme was far better known in the early to mid-1900s than it is today.

A Wise Old Owl Nursery Rhyme


Read A Wise Old Owl

There was an owl liv’d in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
O, if men were all like that wise bird.


Summary

‘A Wise Old Owl’ is a simple nursery rhyme that describes why an owl is so wise and how his actions should be adopted by “man.”

In the first line, the speaker describes how the owl the poem is about lived in an oak. This is a normal existence for an owl, but the following lines personify and complicate his existence. He’s a great listener, the speaker says. The more he hears, the less he speaks, and the less he spoke, the more he heard. This is a way of living that many people, the speaker thinks, would benefit from. Human beings should listen more and speak less, the poem concludes.

Structure and Form

‘A Wie Old Owl’ is a four-line poem. It is sometimes divided into one set of three lines, known as a tercet, and one final concluding line. The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABAB with simple end rhymes, ensuring that the poem is easy to remember and fun to speak out loud. The first three lines of the poem all contain eight syllables, something known as tetrameter. The final line has one added syllable, bringing it to nine.

Literary Devices

Despite its brevity, there are several interesting literary devices at work in ‘A Wise Old Owl.’ These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: can be seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “he” and “heard” in line two and “liv’d” and “less” in lines one and two.
  • Personification: occurs when the poet imbues human characteristics on a non-human object, creature, or element. In this case, the owl is described as wise, as speaking, and as listening as a human being would.
  • Parallelism: the repetition of the same line structure. This occurs with lines two and three of ‘A Wise Old Owl.’
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

There was an owl liv’d in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke

In the first two lines of ‘A Wise Old Owl,’ the speaker sets the scene. The perfectly rhymed lines, in addition to the simple imagery, make these first lines a pleasure to read. They set up an easy-to-remember scenario as well. There was an “old” who lived in an “oak.” The author removed the word “tree” from this line, ensuring that “oak” and “spoke” would rhyme. This was likely a simple decision with the word “oak,” leaving little to the imagination.

The second line is slightly more complicated. The speaker says that the owl was wise because the “more he heard, the less he spoke.” As he listened, he made sure not to speak. This means that he didn’t miss anything important and fully understood everyone else’s position.

Lines 3-4

The less he spoke, the more he heard.
O, if men were all like that wise bird.

In the next line, the speaker creates a similar scenario. This time though, they reverse the phrases. The less the owl spoke, the more he “heard.” This is again suggestive of the owl’s attentiveness and his willingness to listen. It’s clear that the speaker admires this way of living when they conclude the poem by suggesting that it would be great if “men were all like that wise bird.”

As is the case with most nursery rhymes, there are alternative versions. Below is the text for another version of ‘A Wise Old Owl.’

A wise old owl lived in an oak,

The more he saw, the less he spoke

The less he spoke, the more he heard,

Now, wasn’t he a wise old bird?

In this version, the example of syncope in the first line (“liv’d”) has been changed to “lived.” Plus, there are a few other, more important shifts in the text. For instance, in the second line, the speaker uses the phrase “The more he saw” rather than the “more he heard.” This line is still completed with “the less he spoke.” It conveys the same meaning but with a slightly different image created.

The third line of this version of the nursery rhyme is the same, but the fourth is quite different. Rather than “O, if men were all like that wise bird,” the line reads, “Now, wasn’t he a wise old bird?” This shifts the meaning that readers are supposed to take from the text. Now, rather than being asked to consider how the bird compares to humankind, the reader is simply considering how “wise” the “old bird” was.

FAQs

What is the tone of ‘A Wise Old Owl?’

The tone is admiring and analytical. The speaker clearly admires the way the owl listens and doesn’t speak. They convey this through the focus on this singular element alone and suggesting that human beings would be better off if they acted this way too.

What is the purpose of ‘A Wise Old Owl?’

The purpose is to share the importance of listening and not speaking. If one can take the time to listen to those around them, they’re going to be as wise as the old owl.

What is the meaning of ‘A Wise Old Owl?’

The meaning is that it is more important to know when to listen to those around you than to speak all the time. Sometimes, staying silent is the best way to gain information and gain wisdom.

Who is the author of ‘A Wise Old Owl?’

It’s unclear who the author of ‘A Wise Old Owl’ is. This is not an uncommon feature when it comes to nursery rhymes. Some have attributed the poem to Edward Hersey Richards or to William R. Cubbage, but scholars consider these misattributions.

What is the mood of ‘A Wise Old Owl?’

The mood is contemplative and inspiring. Young readers are meant to walk away from this nursery rhyme feeling as though they, too, want to be as wise as the old owl. This should mean that they’re more willing to listen to others.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Wise Old Owl’ should also consider reading some related nursery rhymes. For example:

  • Foxy’s Hole’ – is a nursery rhyme that talks about putting a finger in the fox’s hole to find if it’s there or not. It originated in Tudor, England.
  • Jack Sprat’ – talks about two characters and how they eat to keep their dishes clean. It was included in Samuel Arnold’s children’s songbook “Juvenile Amusement,” published in 1797.
  • There was a crooked man’ – was first published in print in 1842 by James Orchard Halliwell. It is a short, upbeat poem that uses repetition to speak on a series of “crooked” sights.

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About
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.
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