The Owl And The Pussy Cat English Literature Essay

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In this essay I will be analysing Edward Lear's poem 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat' (Appendix 1), first providing a technical stylistic analysis concentrating on sound patterning, secondly locating its place in the history of poetry for children, and thirdly how the poem envisages childhood. It was written in December 1867 for a young girl, Janet Symonds, the daughter of a close friend of Lear, and first published in an anthology by Lear entitled Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets (1871). It has since been published, illustrated, translated, and set to music many times. In 2001 it was voted Britain's favourite poem. Lear uses simple, but creative language to tell the enchanting story of the voyaging sweethearts; the incongruous bird and cat.

Comprising three stanzas, each eleven lines long, it 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 coheres the very different parts of the story. 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 (anapests) 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 the 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 emulates the plucking of guitar strings, which not only enhances the rhythm but also the visual effect of the serenading owl. While the plosive /p/ in 'Pussy' paired with the /b/ in 'beautiful' is not quite alliterative, it is sonorous and seductive of music, reflecting the depth and passion of the owl's endearments. Note, too, that Lear also 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 the relationship is indeed romantic.

In addition to repetition and alliteration, Lear employs strong full rhymes to reinforce sound, meaning and rhythm, and they play an active part in the mood and purpose of this poem. Perfect end rhymes are the most noticeable, but there are also strong internal rhymes, namely occurring in every third line of each stanza, but also in the fifth line in the second and third ones. This mix of one and two syllable rhymes act as a sub-refrain bringing the song sound 'round and round' again to our ears while the text becomes more and more whimsical. Sound and musicality are further brought to our attention by the chiming end rhyme between 'sing' and 'ring' in lines thirteen and fifteen. The words are bright and short, as is the vowel sound, but followed by the consonant /ng/ the sound is extended. The repetition of 'ring' in the refrain helps to mimic the ringing of a bell where we may hear the onomatopoeic resonance of the word 'bong' (from 'bong-tree'). The third stanza culminates in a concentration of internal and assonant rhymes which conjure a visual and aural feast to match the wedding banquet itself, with the final lines evoking the who-o-o, who-o-o of an owl through the long vowel /oo/ in 'moon'. All the qualities of song are present: pleasure, ease of repetition, memorability, rhythm, rhyme and refrains. The apparent spontaneity of these elements emerge from very traditional principles and Lear's witty organisation.

Besides musicality, the other main feature of the poem is 'word-play'. Lear incorporates occasional invented words: 'bong-tree', 'Piggy-wig' and the nonsense adjective 'runcible'. As well as having a humorous effect, they introduce elements of spontaneous fantasy that punctuate the surreal journey of the anthropomorphised animals. Although these words appear made-up they still remain, just, within our normal expectations of English. However, they do deviate from the poem's surrounding simple language and therefore are foregrounded. Thus, the reader/listener pays particularly attention to them because they are satisfying to say without necessarily having to make sense. 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 hyphenation of 'Piggy-wig' actually incorporates the phonemes and meanings of two words, 'pig' and 'wig', managng to succeed 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 strengthen the rhythm. It is not until the final stanza that the rhythm is disrupted slightly by the 'running over' of line twenty-three into twenty-four without a pause. The effect of this enjambment is that we are hurried on to a pivotal stage in the story, the point at which a transaction occurs. The caesura at the word 'ring' creates not just a pause, but also a brief tension as we await the pig's answer. Note, too, that the direct speech in these lines references traditional marriage vows reinforced by the stress on the words 'willing' and 'will'. Furthermore, this transaction also brings the 'real' world nearer to the surface. Without a ring the marriage cannot take place. Only when the 'deal' has been done can the tale, and thus the poem, continue as before. Once the regular rhythm resumes it drives the narrative onward, ending with feline and fowl dancing 'hand in hand, on the edge of the sand…by the light of the moon'. Imagery created by the moonlight (traditionally invoked as being romantic) means the enchantment of the scene dances on with the fantasy sweethearts and is where the reader/listener has to leave them. In spite of the whimsical narrative and word-play the poem is solidly anchored by the strong iambic 'gait' woven through the traditional ballad form of tetrameter and trimeter. The rising rhythms move the poem along whilst being controlled by the full and stable rhymes, making it very satisfying.

Lear's talent first saw the light of day in A Book of Nonsense (1846) containing a collection of his limericks and amusing illustrations which proved an immediate success with readers and critics. Lear's work, along with that of Lewis Carroll, developed and popularised nonsense literature, especially with regard to their use of 'nonsense' words, thus, it is often seen as a distinctively 'Victorian genre'. But literary nonsense existed long before this and, as Styles points out in her essay about the history of poetry for children, can be traced back to the 'wildness of the nursery rhyme' (Styles, p. 211). These ancient and traditional rhymes from the oral tradition, familiarly known as 'Mother Goose' rhymes, are a collection of verses, lullabies, rhymes and tunes offering humour, repetition and storytelling, although few were originally created or intended for children. Eighteenth century poetry considered suitable for children was mostly didactic or moralistic, and often mean-spirited. Its chief aims were concerned with saving the soul and creating good character and, like other children's literature, mostly reflected the ideas that adults held about what children should be interested in. But as Puritanism waned and new ideas about childhood and education emerged, poetic collections written specifically for children began to appear such as Tommy Thumb's Song Book (1744), the first attempt to put nursery rhymes from the oral tradition into print, and two collections from William Blake in 1789 and 1794, although not specifically written for children, did capture the essence of childhood. Other volumes of child-centered poetry appeared in the early part of the nineteenth century, and even though poets at this time continued to follow in the same moralistic tradition there was a growing interest in children's emotions and experiences. The mid and late nineteenth century produced

Stanzaan abundance of poetry for children, including that of Lear, which coincided with the changing views on childhood. Although the roots of nonsense verse are earlier than the nineteenth century, this is the period the most celebrated and notable examples appear. Lear's limericks and nonsense rhymes were not just enjoyed by children, but also by adults, who found them a welcome relief from the restrictive teachings of the Church and Victorian society in general. These witty and humorous rhymes were fun to read aloud and easy to remember.

But Lear's work is not just distinguished by his linguistic play; it also included eccentric and comical drawings. Although his illustrations for 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat' are somewhat conservative, in that the animals are depicted quite realistically and appear expressionless, they do offer an interpretative effect and would have greatly enhanced the impression of the poem at the time of publication. By contrast, the single illustration in 100 Best Poems for Children (Puffin, 2002) is unsophisticated and childlike. While the small brightly coloured picture does offer a modicum of interpretation, in the context of the anthology its purpose is more generic and there is very little for a child to linger over. The lack of illustrations implies that the value of the text is greater than the visual component, and that the anthology is aimed at the older child who can read independently, borne out by the publisher's own website where it is advertised for an age group of eight to twelve years. Interestingly, Montgomery points out that the book 'includes rhymes for the (just) pre-schooler' and although it includes 'some [poetry] for the older child' (Montgomery, p. 137) its purpose is not a prelude to poetry for adults. This anthology then is multi-faceted, intended for children to read alone, or with parents, or in the classroom. Indeed, part of the appeal and enduring popularity of 'The Owl and the Pussy-Cat' is that it lends itself to group choral reading. The poem's jaunty rhythm, playful rhymes, nonsensical words, and the enchanting tale it tells, reminiscent of fairytales and fanciful imaginings, all conspire to grab the child's attention. Creative words and light hearted verse mean children can explore language and enjoy words for their sound and the images they conjure without it necessarily having to make sense. Whether the child believes that weddings between owls and pussycats are part of the 'real' world or not 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 and 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. However, the prioritising of sound and rhythm over sense and 'realism' does not mean that this 'nonsense' poem is meaningless. Lear plays on the sound of words, but with or without the nonsensical elements logic still exists and it is a perfectly coherent tale of romantic love. Yet themes emerge in terms of different depths as well as in terms of being central or peripheral. The surface topic, the one most appealing to children, is a jolly tune about animal adventures hinting at love and a comedy of marriage. On another level it is a strange pairing of species and events set to a rather hypnotic rhythm. Deeper down still, both protagonists are carnivores and night hunters. The poem then is not just about innocent 'nonsense', but also something uncanny. Lear manages to achieve a balance between elements that seem to make sense and elements that do not; a fanciful tale set against the solid foundations of traditional song, familiar everyday language and image unfamiliarly juxtaposed, conventional but also childish. It gratifies the child's appetite for the musical and for the strange. The organisation of the rhythms, rhymes, and nonsensical words gives the poem a whimsical, and yet compelling narrative than lodges in the mind of the adult as well as the child. All these elements contribute to making it entertaining and memorable: 'nonsense' that delights the ear and the imagination.

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References

Bristol, S. Poetry for Children: Development of a Genre http://bristolportfolio.net/517.html

Finlay, N. Edward Lear's Gift of Nonsense http://www.fathom.com/feature/190105/index.html

Jeffries, L. (2009) The Language of Poems for Children: A Stylistic Case Study in Maybin, J. and Watson, N.

Children's Literature: Approaches and Territories, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 218-235

Lear, E. (2002) 'The Owl and the Pussycat' in McGough, R. (ed) 100 Best Poems for Children, Puffin, pp 60

Lear, E. (2004) The Project Gutenberg eBook, Nonsense Books

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13650/13650-h/13650-h.htm

Literary Nonsense http://literary_nonsense.totallyexplained.com/

Montgomery, H. (2009) 'Block 3 - Poetry and Performance' EA300 Study Guide, pp. 137

Puffin Books http://www.puffin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141310589,00.html#synopsis

Styles, M. (2009) 'From the Garden to the Street: The History of Poetry for Children' in Maybin, J. and Watson, N.

Children's Literature: Approaches and Territories, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 202-216

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