The owl and the pussycat

'The Owl and the Pussycat' was written in December 1867 for a young girl, Janet Symonds, the daughter of a close friend of Lear. First published in an anthology by Lear entitled Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets (1871), it has since been consistently anthologized for childen, set to music and animated many times. In 2001 it was even voted Britain's favourite poem. With its imaginary country and made-up words this whimsical poem is considered as humorous or nonsense verse, but it still alludes to the nineteenth century tradition of narrative poetry in that that it also tells a story in a traditional ballad form. The fact that Lear allows his characters to speak for themselves adds a touch of drama to his simple tale. The central themes appear to be romantic love and the quest for marital bliss, but there is also a suggestion of escape and adventure. Lear uses simple, but creative language to tell the enchanting story of the voyaging sweethearts; the incongruous bird and cat. The poem entertains through its power to shape language. The reader/listener is instantly aware that the rhythms and sounds are fresh and lively, which are communicated in a highly direct manner. Delights the ear and the imagination

Comprising three stanzas, each eleven lines long, the poem consists of twin ballad quatrains and a three-line refrain, composed in a distinctive iambic metre. The rhyme scheme is abcbdefe alternating between four and three stressed syllables per line, followed by the refrain eee consisting of two lines with just one stressed syllable, and a final line with three. This uniform rhyme scheme not only gives the poem musical structure, but also serves to break it up into clear sections, or parts of the story, thereby giving it a sense of balance. The rhythmic parallelism of the refrains, in which all three lines end with the same stressed word, is a strict pattern in itself and foregrounds this part of the poem as it takes on an incantatory feel. Although the refrains are not the dominant structure of the poem, they do add musical reinforcement. The regular metrical pattern is what gives the poem its rising rhythm and sing song form and there is little to disrupt the flow of the rhythm, or the story.

The aim then is simplicity and repetition; indeed the first instance of repetition occurs in the opening line, which features the poem's title words thereby reaffirming the focus of the poem. But in this first stanza the most noticeable sound pattern is the concentration of /p/ sounds; a phonological parallelism that extends across the text with the words 'Pussy', 'pea', 'plenty' and 'pound' as well as occurring in 'wrapped' and 'up'. The recurrence of this plosive consonant could be taken to emulate the plucking of guitar strings, which enhances not only the rhythm, but also the visual effect of the serenading owl. The fricative /s/ in 'Pussy' manages to soften the overall sound, so the first stanza, like the owl himself seems elegantly rhythmic. Notice also that Lear uses punctuation to emphasize meaning; the exclamation marks at the end of lines ten and eleven denote an expression of the owl's feelings, suggesting that their relationship is more than just friendship. This device is absent in the equivalent place in the other two stanzas.

In addition to repetition and alliteration, Lear employs rhyme to reinforce sound, meaning and rhythm, and it plays an active part in the mood and purpose of this poem. Perfect end rhymes are the most noticeable, but there are also regular internal rhymes, which pick up the lines without an end rhyme: 'honey' and 'money', 'married' and 'tarried', 'willing' and 'shilling' all have a two syllable rhyme midway and at the end of the line. Line twenty seven yields not only an internal rhyme between 'mince' and 'quince' but an assonant rhyme between 'dined' and 'slices', and in this third stanza sound repetition is further induced by the word 'hand' through an identical internal rhyme, another internal rhyme with sand and assonant rhyme with 'danced'. In lines' thirteen and fifteen musicality are brought to our attention by the chiming end rhyme of 'sing' and 'ring'. These words are bright and short, as is the vowel sound, but when followed by the consonant /ng/ the sound becomes extended. With the repetition of 'ring' in the refrain helping to mimic the ringing of a bell, this could have an onomatopoeic effect. Likewise, the word 'bong' in line seventeen (from 'bong-tree'), is not only similar to the word 'gong' but also sound symbolic and resonant of the low noise emitted from a gong. Besides musicality the other main feature of this poem is 'word-play'. Lear incorporates occasional invented words: 'bong-tree', 'Piggy-wig' and the nonsense adjective 'runcible'. Besides having a humorous effect, they introduce a touch of fantasy that fits well with the surreal journey of the anthropomorphised animals. Although these words appear to be made-up they still conform to our normal expectations of written language and are therefore familiar, as well as being grammatically correct. But the main point here is that because they deviate from the poem's surrounding simple language they receive extra significance, which encourages us to dwell on the individual words and their sound. Even though 'runcible' has no actual meaning (although it has since been popularly defined as a three-pronged fork curved like a spoon) it has a phonological playfulness with the rolling of the 'r' in 'run' followed by the two syllables in 'cible'. The hyphenated 'Piggy-wig' in line eighteen actually incorporates the phonemes and meanings of two words, 'pig' and 'wig', and virtually succeeds as an internal rhyme. While the inclusion of these words doesn't really add anything to the meaning of the phrase, they do at least sustain, and quite possibly improve the rhythm. It is not until the final stanza that the rhythm is disrupted by the 'running over' of line twenty-three into twenty-four without a pause:

'Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'

The effect of this enjambment is that we are hurried on to an exciting stage in the story, the crucial point at which a transaction is to transpire. The caesura at the word 'ring' interrupts the headlong flow of the poem bringing the moment, and particularly the word 'ring' to our notice. Without a ring the marriage cannot take place. Only when we have the pig's answer and the 'deal' has been done can the tale, and thus the poem, continue. It is also interesting to note here that the direct speech in these lines is somewhat reminiscent of traditional marriage vows, reinforced by the stress on the words 'willing' and 'will'. The poem's regular rhythm then resumes, driving the narrative onward, culminating in a concentration of sounds and repetition that seems to reflect the hubbub of a wedding celebration. The final lines have feline and fowl dancing 'hand in hand, on the edge of the sand...by the light of the moon', but here the poem turns aural again with the long vowel /oo/ evoking the hoot of an owl, as in who-o-o, who-o-o. In many ways, therefore, this poem displays a continuous tune throughout. The jaunty rhythm, playful rhymes, nonsensical words and the amusing story it tells all contribute to making it entertaining and memorable. The rhythmic chant stresses the basic characteristics of language in the same way as traditional nursery rhymes, so the poem is easy to recite and memorise. Imaginative words and lightness of theme mean children can explore language and enjoy the words for their sound and the images they conjure without the poem necessarily having to make sense. But there is no real need for 'The Owl and the Pussycat' to make sense; the pleasure is the voyage through language sounds that steer the reader away from sense. Whether or not a child actually believes that owls and cats really do sail away and get married in the moonlight is irrelevant. A story, especially one told in the form of a poem or song, is understood by the child to be part of play, of the imaginative world, not the 'real' one. The rhythm and sound-patterns of the poem are more important than the potential 'reality' or credibility of the tale being told. This poem, like other nonsense verse, satisfies the child's appetite for the musical or for the strange.

With the exception of the oral tradition of nursery rhymes, poetry for children did not really exist prior to the last part of the eighteenth century. Early poetry considered suitable for children was mostly didactic or moralistic, and sometimes even mean-spirited. Its chief aims were concerned with saving the soul and creating good character. Poetry made available to children was not written expressly for them or about their world and, like other children's literature, mostly reflected the ideas that adults held about what children should be interested in. Although nineteenth century poets continued to follow in the same moralistic tradition there was a growing interest in children's emotions and experiences brought about by the gradually changing views on childhood and poetic collections written specifically for children began to appear. Narrative poetry was focused on romanticism frequently used by both the Romantic and the Victorian poets. Nature and love.

The twentieth century saw a shift towards freedom from formality. Poetry became more realistic and optimistic focusing on the joys of childhood, more diverse topics, and a growing popularity of nonsense verse. It was during the nineteenth century that nonsense verse emerged as an antidote to the predominantly stern and religious poetry that was available to children. Thus, it is often seen as a distinctively 'Victorian genre', and it is certainly true that it was that the work of Lear, along with Lewis Carroll, that developed and popularised nonsense literature, especially with regard to their use of 'nonsense' words. In fact, Lear's work is often described as a response to the social conditions of his age. As Snider (1991) comments, Lear 'lived in an age that ...needed to laugh' since evangelicals 'preached the denial of virtually everything that was fun or Dionysian in life' (Snider, 1991): a philosophy which was imposed on children as well as adults. Snider quotes Noakes (1986) as saying that Lear 'offered children the liberation of unaffected high spirits ... in an age when children were loaded with shame, Lear attempted to free them from it' (Noakes, 1986, as cited in Snider, 1991). His nonsense rhymes allowed children to discover 'undreamt-of lands and wonders not only unseen but scarcely even imagined' (Noakes, 1986, as cited in Snider, 1991). The sound and rhythm of the verse, its song-like qualities, lifted the listener out of the realms of stolid, serious moral preaching, and this upbeat, optimistic trend was enhanced by the imaginative freedom of the subject matter. Snider points out that Victorian children were taken from the childhood 'comforts of mother and home' at an early age: poor children went to work, and affluent ones were sent away to school. The imaginative, carefree world of Lear's poems was a continuing, subconscious reassurance that there was 'something more' than the harshness of adult life into which they had been propelled. Snider argues that Lear himself felt excluded from 'normal' adult society, but at the same time rejected aspects of that society which suppressed joy and freedom, especially sexual freedom. The strange pairing of the owl and the cat is accepted without question within the context of the poem, which Snider relates to Lear's own sexuality and his desire for homosexuality to be freely accepted within society. The poem conveys to the child the idea that to be 'different' is not morally wrong, and that journeys and liaisons which seem strange to those in the 'real' world can in fact be productive and fulfilling. The owl and the cat are following their own imaginative paths, rather than the ones laid out for them by societal assumptions and preconceptions in the 'real' world, and are thus able to reach the point where they live 'happily ever after'.

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