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Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-cat

The Owl at Home, by children’s book author Arnold Lobel (1933-1987), was one of my son’s favorite books. It consists of five different adventures of the owl in his home. Through those adventures Owl learns how to overcome fear, the difference between upstairs and downstairs, how to deal with sadness, and so forth. Not only does Arnold Lobel’s entertaining story helps young children to understand the world around them, but also his story helps the young readers to understand the world of emotions within them. Fanciful stories to delight and instruct children have been used throughout the centuries by authors of children stories, including Victorian writer Edward Lear. He used personification, rhyme scheme, and internal rhyme to create the aural imagery in his nonsensical, yet didactic, poem The Owl and The Pussy-cat that addresses one of the dominant themes of the Victorian Period.

Victorian writer and painter Edward Lear, born into an English middle-class family at the end of the Romantic Period, was the twentieth child of twenty-one children. Many of his siblings did not live past infancy (“Edward Lear” 2). Although he lived to be seventy-plus years, his health was fragile. To add to his life-long woes, when he was a young child his parents experienced extreme financial difficulty, which caused the breakdown of his family: his father went to debtor’s prison and his mother left him in the care of his older sister. Even after things improved financially for the Lear family, Edward Lear’s mother never returned to care for him. He was marred for life by his mother’s rejection, thus throughout his life the majority of his relationships were doomed (“Edward Lear” 5 – 7).

Edward Lear’s personal conflict was reflected in a great number of his limericks and nonsensical poems. For example, in many of his limericks set the eccentric in conflict with “they,” the faceless members of society at large (“Edward Lear” 8 –10). The “they” were those who persecuted the less fortunate in the Victorian society. For example, in his limerick There was an Old Man of the West “the faceless they” spun a weary old man on his face, instead of giving him a place to rest.

There was an Old Man of the West, Who never could get any rest; So they set him to spin on his nose and his chin. Which cured that Old Man of the West. Comment by wyarbrough: how to format text in a paper? and need to introduce the quote- possible a colon after rest?

No place for misfits in the Victorian society was the underlying message of Edward Lear’s limericks and nonsensical poems (“Poems and Limericks of Edward Lear | Edward Lear | Lit2Go ETC” 4).

Other Victorian writers, besides Edward Lear, used verbal play as a device to derive humor from the cruelty, pain, and death that was the plight of many Britons during the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign. The overriding theme during that time was melancholy and isolation, plus escapement, i.e., to escape loneliness (“The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors | W. W. Norton & Company” 1942, 1945–1947). Clearly, Edward Lear’s childhood wasn’t a happy one, which undergirded his desire to delight children with whimsical images of perfect world where tolerance is the norm. For instance, in his nonsensical poem The Owl and the Pussy-cat an owl and a cat are married by a turkey after the pair bought a wedding ring from a pig – four different types successfully engaged in the art of acceptance. Throughout history “tolerance” has been a reoccurring theme in children’s literature. Edward Lear used several techniques in The Owl and the Pussy-cat to turn a difficult lesson into a delightful experience for children (of all ages).

Edward Lear used the technique of personification to give the non-human characters – owl, cat, pig and turkey – human characteristics: the animals engaged in the acts of courtship, love, elopement, and marriage. Although real-life animals do engage in forms of mating, they just don’t have a need for “money wrapped in five-pound note while they sit together in a beautiful pea-green boat” (“The Owl and the Pussycat” 1) – but humans do have a need for money and most people would enjoy an outing in a beautiful boat. However, in the poem it is a cat serenaded by a guitar-playing owl, while they sit in a boat under a star-lite sky – acceptance is clearly the message in this short poem.

Mr. Lear, who was melancholy due to various rejections throughout his life, deeply desired a “happy place” (where one is giddy because of total acceptance). He understood that poetry is a type of literature in which the sound and meaning of language are combined to create ideas and stir feelings in the hearer (“Literary Terms and Definitions P” Poetry); he used that genre skillfully to create images that has delighted children of all ages, since he first penned the poem. How comical to think of an owl and a pussy-cat “…sailed away for a year and a day, to the land where the Bong-tree grows” (“The Owl and the Pussycat” 2)Yet, while the children are amused by nonsense of the poem, they mused on the oddity of two natural enemies in love with each other.

In addition to the use of personification, Edward Lear used two other techniques – rhyme scheme and internal rhyme – to create imagery of sound: aural imagery is the technical term for images of sound. The pattern of rhyming lines (rhyme scheme) in The Owl and The Pussy-Cat follows an ABAB pattern in the first stanza.

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 last word in line one rhymes with the last word in line three, “sea/ money,” and the last word of line two rhymes with the last word in line four, “boat/note” (“Edward Lear – The Owl and the Pussycat” 1, 1–4). Rhyming creates rhythm. Rhythm captures attention. Captured attention focuses on the intended message. That’s the power of poetry.In addition to the rhyme scheme used in The Owl and The Pussy-cat, Edward Lear used the technique of internal rhyme, i.e., rhyming a word in the middle of a line with a word at the end of the same line. For example, the first three lines in stanza two are:Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!”How charmingly sweet you sing!O let us be married! too long we have tarried:Notice the internal rhyming of owl/fowl in line one, and married/tarried in line three. The combining the techniques of rhyme scheme and internal rhyme Edward Lear created delightful aural images in his nonsensical poem (“The Owl and the Pussycat” 2).At first glance The Owl and The Pussy-cat may seem senseless; yet, a close reading of the poem will reveal the inmost yearnings for an intimate-love relationship. In many ways Edward Lear’s personal experiences reflected the reactions of many of the Victorian writers, who felt that England’s leadership in commerce and industry was being paid for in the lost of human happiness. That loss of human happiness gave way to the dominant themes of melancholy, isolation, and escapement in Victorian Literature(“The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors | W. W. Norton & Company” 1942).[Type text] [Type text] [Type text]Works Cited:“Edward Lear.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 26 Mar. 2014. Wikipedia. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.“Edward Lear – The Owl and the Pussycat.” Poetry Genius. N. p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.“Edward Lear : The Poetry Foundation.” N. p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.“Literary Terms and Definitions P.” N. p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.“Poems and Limericks of Edward Lear | Edward Lear | Lit2Go ETC.” N. p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.“The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors | W. W. Norton & Company.” N. p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.“The Owl and the Pussycat.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 24 Mar. 2014. Wikipedia. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

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