The Owl and the Pussycat: A Whimsical Tale of True Love, Adventure and Travel

The Owl and the Pussycat, painting by Katherine Jones

The Owl and the Pussycat, painting by Katherine Jones

This couple prepared for their elopement making sure they had the essentials - some honey, lots of money and a small guitar - before fearlessly boarding their pea green boat. The whimsy of this poem by Edward Lear introduced generations of children to adventure, travel and true love, with these two explorers who threw doubt and unease out of the boat before embarking on their journey, the world and seas at their command.

Perhaps this is why the poem is still cited in wedding ceremonies, and cards sent to newly-weds. The sense of invincibility – we have found each other, we have chosen each other, the world and seas are at our command - is a familiar sentiment to those in the early throes of love.

Other poems in the same elaborately illustrated book supplied adequate darkness and menace; The Highwayman, Jabberwocky and Annabel Lee, but any latent terror in The Owl and The Pussycat was implied.

Their sustenance, honey signifies a literal honeymoon, a term coined by Samuel Johnson in the 16th century to describe the first moon phase of a married couple’s life together. They are allies in this incredible adventure, as they seek to become family.

I love that their gender is not specified in this poem – and although friends have told me that the Owl is male and the Pussycat female, as a child I always imagined them as two girls, ready to go anywhere, do anything and take on the world with their five pound note. Their resourcefulness – the wedding ring bought from the end of the pig’s nose – seemed at once daring, sensible and infinitely romantic.

A friend suggested their elopement may be a reflection of society, that they may be lovers from different social stations, or unable to wed for some other reason, and perhaps this is the case. Maybe like the highwayman and his lover Bess, they would be held apart, if they did not flee. Maybe, it is not a story of exploration, but one of flight. Maybe if the highwayman and Bess had been cleverer they too could have escaped their terrible fate.

Yet this poem is more than fanciful nonsense, a story of two people who find not only one another but also the world at their feet. Written in 1871, when travel by sea was perilous and foreign lands unfamiliar, but regarded as ours for the taking - Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was 18 years hence - this children’s poem captured the excitement of an age of exploration, without revealing its terror.

David Livingstone had won fame for his expeditions to Zambezi, and in search of the source of the river Nile. Though Livingstone’s adventures were pervaded with massacres, fevers and uncooperative weather, the Victorian appetite for tales from exotic lands was whetted. The Owl and the Pussycat, written for the three-year-old daughter of Lear’s friends, translated this zeitgeist into a story comprehensible to a small child, filled with excitement, courage and enterprise.

The innocence of this poem is its charm - but the reason it has so endured is partly to do with the unseen darkness lingering under the waves of an inky sea. The jovial naivety of these lovers is, like the myth of empire, something that will not endure when exposed to reality. The poem is nonsensical, with the wonderful invention of the term ‘runcible spoon’ and maybe this protects its lovers a little, separating them from whirlpools ready to swallow small boats, unknown fevers in wait to attack visitors from other lands, and the cruelty of empire.

An artist friend painted The Owl and The Pussycat on a large canvas, the boat the vivid green of frozen peas rather than the muted pea-soup green I remember from childhood, the sky a deep blue throwing the brightness of the stars into relief.  Beneath this sky the owl looks at the Pussycat, and the Pussycat watches the glassy horizon.