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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Lear and Far

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!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
          His nose,
          His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,  
          The moon, 
They danced by the light of the moon.

Beyond the Owl and the Pussycat

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The most famous poem written by the grand nonsense versifier, Edward Lear, is the one about the owl and the pussycat eloping together, and with the possible exception of ‘The Jumblies’ it is his best too. One of the curious things about this marvellous flight of silly fantasy is how it seems to demand a sequel. And sequels have been provided, one by Lear himself. Why this should be the case remains a minor mystery. No one to my knowledge has ever tried to write a sequel to his other poems, not even he.

It is not enough to state that the original story of the owl and pussycat lacks a convincing resolution. So do most of his other poems. No, there is a special quality about this work, about the adventure of two animals, one feathery, the other furry, that encourages further speculation on what might happen to them next. We extrapolate the action in our minds and frequently we are tempted to write down what we think could be a suitable or surprising continuation. But none of the sequels have become well-known.

The owl and the pussycat went to sea, they were married and danced in the light of the moon. So far, so good. Lear originally wrote the poem for a three year old girl, Janet Symonds, who was the daughter of a close friend. Might a young child have understood words such as ‘runcible’? No, but that word is an invented one anyway, coined by Lear for this poem, and though it has entered the dictionary nobody is quite clear as to what it means. My own dictionary, a battered old dusty thing, claims that a ‘runcible spoon’ is a curved fork. I have the option to believe that definition and I decline.

Lear liked the word he had coined so much that he spent it freely in other poems, obscuring the meaning still further. The enthusiastic reader can find a ‘runcible hat’, ‘runcible wall’, ‘runcible cat’, ‘runcible goose’ and ‘runcible raven’ in his extensive works. It is a satisfying word and that is sufficient to justify its frequent use by him or anyone else. Lear was a primarily a visual artist and often illustrated his own poems and there exists his own drawing of the famous ‘runcible spoon’ in the beak of a bird known as the ‘dolomphious duck’ who employs it to scoop up frogs.

That should have settled the matter. The ‘runcible spoon’ is a type of ladle. But in fact nothing was settled. British national newspapers published letters from readers demanding to know what the thing was. Other readers answered with all the knowledge, or fancy, at their disposal. It became a spoon named after a butler who obsessively polished cutlery until it changed shape. Or it was a spoon with a sharp cutting edge that ought to remind the person who used it of the Roncevaux and the battle fought there with swords that feasted on the tasty morsels inside the tin can armour of the troops engaged in the fighting. And yet speculations like these are doomed to defeat. ‘Roncevaux’ sounds nothing like ‘runcible’ and the quince enjoyed by the owl and pussycat certainly has a taste different from that of fallen hacked knights.

To focus on one word in a marvellous verse narrative that includes perilous ocean crossings, forbidden romance, mercantile pigs and serenades seems petty in the extreme. Let us agree that ‘runcible’ is a fine word and leave the deeper question to future generations to solve. It will surely be more fruitful to consider the epic journey freed from the mooring ropes of semantics. The owl and the pussycat set out to sea in a ‘pea-green boat’. It is not revealed whether this boat belongs to them or whether they have requisitioned it. They carry supplies with them in the form of honey and plenty of money and it is stated plainly that this money is ‘wrapped in a five-pound note’. Now that is a peculiar assertion for Lear to make. Why wrap money inside more money? Five-pound notes back in his day were large, more like small towels than the kinds of banknotes we are familiar with. Have these two intrepid beasts turned the five-pound note into a parcel that contains gold coins? It is hardly a safe place to conceal valuables. A thief who steals the five-pound note will take the rest unintentionally. And they are at sea. Are there no pirates in these waters?

I will say nothing about the fact that owls and cats are not generally known for forming amorous relationships with each other. That would be crass. But it is true that the larger species of owl is a menace to the domestic cat and would rarely hesitate to swoop and grab one for lunch. Yet love flourishes in the most unlikely of settings and circumstances. Better to mind our own business and not pry into private matters. The owl and pussycat wish to elope and our duty is to stand aside and let them do so. The owl turns out to be a competent musician despite lacking fingers and plays the guitar for the pussycat while singing songs of charm and sweetness. Compliments are exchanged between the pair and the pussycat soon urges marriage as a most desirable development. Yes, the owl is willing but the couple have no ring. Impediment!

They sail away for a year and a day to a land ‘where the Bong-tree grows’. To spend so long at sea without making landfall in such a tiny vessel is really an achievement. How much honey did they take with them to last so long? It seems feasible that they supplemented their diet with fish caught fresh from the ocean or perhaps with migrating birds that the owl would be able to intercept. We who live on land have no right to criticise. On the island they discover a pig with a ring in his nose. Yet he is a free pig, owned by no one, and presumably the ring is decoration rather than a symbol of servitude. We see in our modern age how many people wear jewellery in their flesh that has no deeper meaning than style and fashion. Buccaneers originally wore gold earrings to pay for their funerals if they were killed in a skirmish. Contemporary men wear earrings perhaps to look like buccaneers. In the first case, the purpose is more important. In the second case, it is the appearance that matters. Who can say what reason the pig has for his ring? Lear tells us that this pig is actually a ‘Piggy-wig’ and there might be a clue to some esoteric status in that suffix.

The pig agrees to sell the ring for ‘one shilling’. It is doubtful whether the pig has any spare change in such a remote location. Therefore the shilling must be a coin, part of the money wrapped in the five-pound note. Why protect the token of lesser value with the token of greater? It makes no sense. The paper banknote is likely to have been splashed by water during the crossing. It would be very improbable for a sea voyage of 366 days to be entirely storm free. Paper turns soggy, metal does not. To cover the five-pound note with the shillings is the sensible thing to do, and store them in the driest part of the boat. But who am I to give advice to these characters? They have been successful in all they have so far attempted. The transaction is made and the ring is handed over. A turkey who lives on a hill agrees to marry them the next day. The ceremony is completed and the nuptial night is celebrated by a modest feast and a corybantic dance on the sand in the bright moonlight.

How marvellous! How wonderful! Why do we feel that more needs to be told? The narrative is incomplete, of course. Too many questions remain to be answered. But why do we insist on learning more about the owl, the pussycat, the world that is theirs? Once again, I maintain that this curiosity extends to no other of Lear’s poems. We read about the ‘Dong with the Luminous Nose’ and we are satisfied with what we are given. None of the limericks demand further action. Could it be simply that the poem is so nice we wish it to continue? That we are dissatisfied with its brevity? Lear must have felt the same way because he began writing a long sequel but it was never finished. What remains is truly a peculiar work. Although it is never stated explicitly that the owl is male and the pussycat female, it is certain that this is a heterosexual pairing because in Lear’s fragmentary sequel the couple have children. ‘The Children of the Owl and the Pussy-cat’ was published posthumously in 1938, long after Lear’s death. Let us now consider what happens in that narrative.

The children of the two voyagers are part fowl and part feline. They love to catch and eat mice. They take up the story and reveal that they live on the shore of Calabria. Does this mean that the land where the Bong-tree grows is part of Italy? Or did the couple move from the place where the pig married them? The cat climbs a tree one day and falls to her death. The owl is now a single parent but he rallies and does his best to look after the children. “Our owly father long was ill from sorrow and surprise / But with the feathers of his tail he wiped his weeping eyes. / And in the hollow of a tree in Sila’s inmost maze / We made a happy home and there we pass our obvious days.”

Other owls visit them and bring them news of the outside world, but this is regarded as nothing to be grateful for because the children “take no interest in poltix of the day”. The money has almost run out but the owl still plays on the guitar and sings songs to nobody in particular. The sequel breaks off abruptly. It is a rather sad set of rhymes but the tale it tells is no more implausible than the original elopement. The pig and the turkey play no part in the events. Nor is it revealed exactly how many children there are.

Beatrix Potter, however, did write more about the pig. ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson’ is a prequel that relates the background of the pig. No one has seen fit to write in greater depth about the turkey and that is a shame. But over the decades that followed, a few more details emerged about the owl and the cat. In the 1977 animated film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the character Owl mentions that it was a relative of his who went to sea in the pea-green boat. Eric Idle, former member of the Monty Python team, has penned an apocryphal work about what occurred between the owl and pussycat’s marriage and the fatal accident. ‘The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat’ features a tense episode in which the couple are attacked by a band of ravenous rats. A heretical text published in the Roald Dahl Treasury is set in an alternate world in which the owl offers gin to the pussycat and so she rejects him. The comedian Stewart Lee has also created an extended version of the story. None of these sequels dispel the feeling that there is a lot more to be told about the remarkable owl and pussycat.

I have made three or four attempts to write a sequel myself. I will leave you with arguably the most appropriate one.

“Mayday! Mayday!” hooted the Owl
as the pea-green boat began to sink.
“We’re low on honey and plenty of money
won’t serve for a life-raft, I think!
The Pussy-cat can’t swim and even I won’t
be able to flap as far as the shore.
We’re in the drink of an appalling bay
and drowning seems the only way
        that this unfunny day
         is going to finish at all.”

“Don’t panic,” said the confident voice
over the crackling radio static.
“The Royal National Lifeboat Institutional Society for the  
      Protection of Talking Fictional Animals is coming to you 
       without delay.”

            And so it was.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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