Nonsense is powerful stuff. Edward Lear's poem "The Owl and the Pussycat," which makes no literal sense whatsoever, has charmed its way into the hearts of children and adults since it was written in 1871. The cultural influence of this poem has been broad indeed; it has inspired musical compositions by composers such as Stravinsky, and its title was borrowed for a 1970 romantic comedy starring Barbara Streisand.
This poem's form follows a simple pattern appropriate for a nursery rhyme. Each of its three stanzas is eleven lines long. The rhyme scheme is ABCBDEDEEEE. The ninth and tenth lines are shortened versions of the eighth and eleventh, which are identical in each stanza. The third line of each stanza includes an internal rhyme, for example, "O let us be married! too long we have tarried."
This straightforward rhyme scheme makes the poem easy to remember and fun to recite. Try it! "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!'"
The rhythm of this poem further adds to the fun of reciting it. For the first eight lines, the poet alternates between four and three stressed syllables for line. The short ninth and tenth lines each have just one stressed syllable, and the final line has three. The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables gives this poem a bouncy, singsong rhythm that doubtless added to its appeal to the many composers who have set it to music.
While the poem's rhyme and rhythm give it a jaunty flow, Lear's creative use of language gives this poem its special appeal. In telling the ridiculous tale of a love affair between a seafaring owl and pussycat, Lear makes use of repetition and even made up words to create a poem that is amusing to recite and to hear. Terms like "Bong-tree," "Piggy-wig," and "runcible spoon" might not make much sense, but they sure are fun to say!
"The Owl and the Pussycat" appeals to the child in all of us, reminding us not to take life or our language too seriously. We should never underestimate the power of nonsense to make us smile.
Lear, Edward. "The Owl and the Pussycat." Reproduced at http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/ns/pussy.html.