‘The Octopus’ is a deceptively simple children’s poem that takes a look at themes that include the nature of life and animal/human relationships. The speaker addresses an octopus throughout the four short lines of the poem. He wonders over its form and habits while using amusing, archaic language and alluding to deeper questions and considerations.
Explore The Octopus
Summary of The Octopus
The poem is addressed to an octopus. It contains the musings of a speaker who is wondering about the nature of the octopus’s life and limbs. He can’t help but see this single creature as multiple and find himself confused by how its body works.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Octopus
‘The Octopus’ by Ogden Nash is a four-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text, known as a quatrain. This quatrain follows a simple and consistent rhyme scheme of AABB. This simple rhyme scheme is perfectly arranged for the style of the poem that Nash was interested in writing. This piece is what is known as a nonsense poem, made famous by writers like Lewis Carroll.
It is designed to entertain, amuse, and appeal mainly to kids. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements added to entice adults too. In this poem, in particular, Nash alludes to the complexities of life in a way that only adults would understand. As with most nonsense poems, the meaning of the poem is less important than the sounds the words make together and the enjoyment of the imagery.
Poetic Techniques in The Octopus
Despite its brevity, Nash makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Octopus’. These include, but are not limited to, alliteration, caesura, enjambment, and allusion. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “O Octopus” in line one and “those thing” and “they” in line two.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. The last line is a great example of this technique. It connected to another important part of the poem, allusion.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, Nash is alluding to the complex nature of the octopus’s body. It has multiple limbs, three hearts, and nine brains. It can seem, because of its twisting movements and oddities, to be more than one creature.
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 transition between lines three and four.
Analysis of The Octopus
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
In the first lines of ‘The Octopus,’ the speaker begins by making use of a technique known as apostrophe. An apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone or something which does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person, creature, or thing is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, the speaker addresses an octopus.
One of the most amusing and interesting features of this poem is the ungrammatical phrasing of words like “begs” and the use of “is” rather than “are” in the second line. This is done in order to convey the speaker’s confusion over what the octopus is and whether it is one creature or two, or even more. He also expresses this by contemplating the number of arms and legs the octopus has. Or, he wonders, are they just arms? Or just legs? This is a pleasant and stimulating thought that is meant in equal measure to entertain and trigger one’s imagination.
If I were thou, I’d call me Us.
In the second couplet of ‘The Octopus’ Nash’s speaker directly addresses the creature again. He uses words like “thee” and “thou”. This is an interesting example of archaism in action. This is a technique that uses old words or expressions in order to allude to another meaning or purpose. In this case, Nash uses “thee” and “thou” to connect this poem back to Victorian nursery rhymes or children’s poetry. This makes it seem larger than life, more antique, and puts distance between the conception of these questions and the reading of them. They have been asked for a long time.
In the last line, the speaker alludes again to the nature of the octopus’s physiology, particularly how it seems like multiple creatures. He suggests that if he “were thou,” (the octopus) then he would call himself “Us”. They would be multiple creatures together.