Just as American children grow up with Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, British children grow up with Edward Lear’s fantastical but touching poem “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of
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,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
These strange companions, eloping with their honey and money, purchase a wedding ring from a pig, who has been wearing one through his nose. This enables them to be married by the turkey who lives on the hill, after which they dine on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon. But the best line is the last: The happy couple, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, become a reflection of perfect harmony—
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
I have heard this poem read at more than one wedding. There is always an awkward moment during the line when the owl serenades his bride-to-be—O lovely Pussy!—as the modern wedding guest tries not to allow his or her mind to descend to low thoughts. But it is striking that a “nonsense” verse, published in 1871 and intended for children, has become so entwined with the national heartstrings that people recite it at a ceremony of the greatest adult emotional importance.
The reason is that Lear’s best nonsense poetry is charming in the most powerful sense of that word: It casts a musical spell that is both hopeful and poignant. We all know, after all, that in the workaday world, birds and cats can’t love each other. But the impossibility of this romance is part of a wider, wilder, fragile dream of escape that Lear’s poetry enables—to the land where the Bong-tree grows. Significantly, in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” these two creatures of darkness don’t dance “in the moonlight” but by the light of the moon; we hear “delight” in “the light,” and a quiet joyfulness shimmers off the page.
Edward Lear (1812-88), whose bicentenary we have celebrated this year, had a curious life. He was born in London, the 20th of 21 children. Like Dickens, he experienced early the fiscal uncertainties of middle-class life. His father was a sugar-refiner turned stockbroker who lost his shirt in the stock market when Lear was 4, and was imprisoned for debt. Lear’s mother, perhaps understandably, given her huge brood, handed over Edward’s care to his oldest sister, Ann, his “guardian spirit.” He was a playful but sensitive boy: epileptic, depressive, and (possibly) the victim of some kind of abuse from an older child during his brief encounter with school.
The result was that he was ejukated (as Lear liked to spell it) at home, and his pursuits were closer to those of Victorian young women than those of tougher boys, who thrashed out a syllabus of Latin and rugby and mathematics. Instead, Lear learned to paint birds and flowers and butterflies, with which he decorated fans and albums. He learned to sing and play the piano, which he continued to do all his life. And he learned to write poetry and entertaining letters—often combining the two to make the recipient smile.
It is in the intimate dialogue of letters that Lear’s nonsense begins. He plays with phonetic representations of words: “Oliver Cromwell” becomes “Allofacrumble.” He uses words that sound like their more appropriate cousins, but have divergent meanings: “at my advanced age” becomes “at my advantageous.” Ultimately, words evolve that are clearly adjectives, but whose meanings are entirely suggested by their sound and shape: “runcible,” “scroobious,” “polybingular.” Most of Lear’s nonsense poems and stories were originally produced for friends’ children in the context of playful correspondence, and they still have the quality of private language and escapade that makes them seem peculiarly “for us,” whoever we may be.