The Owl and the Pussycat is the best nonsense poem of all time (just ahead of the momentous punch of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”). Edward Lear’s nonsensical words gently undercut a sentimental story, balancing romance with frivolity, sense with nonsense, adventure with security, and the result is a story whose perfect meter and easy rhyme lull one to a state of blissful conviction that, yes, the world could be lovely if only it were full of owls and pussycats. I’d guess that most of us as children were read the rhythmic poem by parents bouncing through the words, and if asked, would be able to chime in with “The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…” This poem makes for amusing and reminiscent moments, but there’s also something beyond its fluidity and fun, something a little more substantial. As Shakespeare’s fools often do, its spout of apparent nonsense contains substance beyond that of its guised children’s story (at least for the keen and dutiful reader)…
That substance, of course, comes from the reader, and the reader of today and the reader of 1871 might have different takes. Through today’s lens you might find the glorification of an unconventional marriage, a bird and a cat. You wouldn’t be wrong, the poem fully embraces an owl serenading a house cat. But then again, The Owl and the Pussycat was published in Another Book of Nonsense in 1871 Edwardian England. Not exactly a time known for it’s progressive politics. Or we may look at a line like “Oh lovely Pussy, oh Pussy my love, What a beautiful Pussy you are, You are. You are! What a beautiful Pussy you are” and say that Lear was pushing some boundaries, subtly yet unabashedly conflating endearing terms for a cat and for sex in his story. But the sentiment had a slightly different ring to it then. Pussy was a word to refer to a woman and didn’t take on it’s more lewd meaning until the end of that century. What I’m getting at fairly blunderingly is that The Owl and the Pussycat can be poured full of interpretations. And it should be. Because often, the value of a story throughout history is exactly that– its ability to incite interpretation and re-interpretation as the times change. Basically, to forever remain culturally relevant. The exact interpretation is less important than the impetus one feels to interpret.
Now, this is a kid’s nonsense poem. Lear makes up words, he paints silly pictures of the owl crooning on a guitar to his pussycat. He has turkeys perform marriage rites (hmmm, what’s that say about marriage?). But for centuries, comedy has provided the best platform for commentary, and deep down, in his story of a fowl and a feline, Lear captures something elemental about humanity. Love for adventure, adventure for love, and all the questions, possibilities, and unknown surrounding these un-extinguishable tendencies. And all the various manifestations of them. For such an odd and lonely man, Lear has driven right to the heart of something human and ever-unresolved.
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