OWL AND PUSSYCAT written by David Cowles
No, our title does not refer to a pub in London…though if it did, I would certainly be having a pint there. Rather it refers to a poem (The Owl and the Pussy-cat) written by nineteenth century poet, Edmund Lear, a man more famous in nursery schools than in universities.
Edmund Lear is identified as an author of “nonsense” poems and stories, a charge he readily accepts. How could he not? His collected works include such titles as Nonsense Songs & Stories and The Book of Nonsense.
Most critics have been content to accept Lear’s self-identification at face value. But what if there is something more going on here? Consider the case of St. Paul. In his First Letter to Corinthians, he writes:
“The message of the cross is foolishness…It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
But he also writes, “Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature…we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”
Is it possible that something similar could be going on in the case of Edward Lear? Could there be wisdom ‘hidden’ in his apparent nonsense. And if so, what deeper meaning might lie beneath the surface of his work?
Let’s take a closer look at The Owl and the Pussy-cat, by far Lear’s most famous work. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety:
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! Oh 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 the 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 in the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon.
No prosecutor worth his salt would have a moment’s difficulty making a prime facie case for nonsense here. The defense on the other hand, contending that there is method in this madness, certainly has its work cut out for it. But let’s give it a go!
Our argument rests on the very first line…and on the title itself. An owl and a pussy-cat, indeed! Tales of animosity between birds and cats permeate all of literature right down to Sylvester and Tweety. The notion that an owl and a pussy-cat could peacefully co-exist, much less fall in love, seems absurd. Yet it is the premise of this poem.
Oddly though, this juxtaposition is reminiscent of another story told 2500 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah:
“Then the wolf will be the guest of the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.”
Isaiah’s imagery introduces the Messiah, and with the Messiah, the eschaton, Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. Is Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-Cat also an eschatological poem and if so is Lear’s vision of the eschaton the same as Isaiah’s?
To answer these questions we need to look more deeply into Lear’s poem; after all, owl and pussy-cat could have been chosen precisely for the absurdity of the image. If we believe that a deeper wisdom may be hidden beneath the apparent nonsense, we still have a long way to go to make our case.
There are in all 10 eschatological elements in this poem. The first, of course, is the choice of heroes (see above). Beyond that…
Wisdom: Out of all the animals Lear could have picked, owls and cats are arguably the two most commonly associated with wisdom (“wise old owl”, the Sphinx, etc.). In Isaiah and in Paul, wisdom is a crucial element of the eschatological imagery.
Isaiah writes of the Messiah, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding…” And of the eschaton he writes, “…The earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.”
Paul is speaking of the same Messiah when he writes, “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption.”
The choice of an owl and a pussy-cat as the heroes of this adventure takes on a second level of significance. Not only does their voyage represent the reconciliation of all conflict but it also represents the triumph of universal wisdom that must accompany the eschaton.
Honey: For food on the trip, the owl and the pussy-cat choose honey, something that neither species eats. In fact, both owls and cats are carnivorous predators; why would they take honey and only honey on their voyage? Again, we turn to Isaiah: “…The lion shall eat hay like the ox.” A change of diet can indicate a change of character.
But there is yet another way to read this. Just as owls and cats are archetypes of conflict and just as owls and cats are archetypes of wisdom, so honey is the archetypical spiritual food (“nectar of the gods”). In his reading then, the ‘honey’ is not a dietary item at all.
Love: The love that the owl and the pussy-cat express for one another has an ecstatic quality about it and we know that ecstatic physical love is often a placeholder for spiritual fervor. Consider Solomon’s Song of Songs in Old Testament wisdom literature:
“Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth for your love is better than wine…My lover belongs to me and I to him; he feeds among the lilies…How beautiful you are my friend, how beautiful you are! Your eyes are like doves behind your veil…How beautiful you are, how fair, my love, daughter of delights! Your very form resembles a date-palm, and your breasts, clusters.”
This same connection between ecstatic love and spirituality is found in other traditions as well, most notably that of the Sufis.
(For more on Sufism, read Mary Poppins Sufi Master in this collection of essays.)
Marriage: Pussy says, “O let us be married, too long we have tarried.” In Alfred North Whitehead’s eschatology, the spatiotemporal world is full of conflicts…conflicts that are gradually resolved into contracts and ultimately into harmony. That universal harmonization is the Kingdom of Heaven, the eschaton.
According to this interpretation, ‘tarrying’ symbolizes the period of conflict and ‘marriage’ symbolizes that resolution of that conflict into eternal harmony.
Voyage: And what of the voyage itself? First, it is for ‘a year and a day’, a specific quantity that often symbolizes infinity. And its destination? “The land where the Bong-tree grows.” But there’s just one problem: there’s no such thing as a Bong-tree…and so there is no such land either, at least not in the realm of our experience.
So we seem to be looking at an endless voyage to nowhere. And yet, our voyagers do arrive at their destination. So we may instead be looking at a timeless voyage to somewhere outside the spatiotemporal realm, some place like the Kingdom of Heaven for instance.
Ring: Now attention turns to the matter of the ring. Acquiring the ring was perhaps the purpose of the journey all along (“But what shall we do for a ring?”). But if an ordinary ring is all they wanted, why didn’t they just buy one? After all, they had “plenty of money”. Perhaps the ring they wanted was not available in the spatiotemporal world but only in “the land where the Bong-tree grows”.
In the end, they found their ring of choice on the end of a pig’s nose and they bought it for a mere shilling. What was so special about that ring that it was worth a voyage of a year and a day but cost only a shilling?
Could it be that the ring was actually a Mobius strip, a one sided, 2 dimensional object? A Mobius strip is ‘non-orientable’, a topology in which there is no fixed beginning or end and no fixed orientation. Many eschatological cosmologies, for example Dante’s in the Divine Comedy, include a non-orientable topology.
A Mobius strip has the unique property that allows you to travel around it continuously, always coming back to the starting point; however, each time you return to the starting point, your orientation is reversed.
In the Divine Comedy, Satan appears upside down once Dante begins the trek through Purgatory to Paradise. In St. Paul and perhaps in Edward Lear, it is foolishness/nonsense and wisdom that are opposite orientations.
Spoon: And this piece of speculation brings us to the famous “runcible spoon”. At one time, it was thought that Lear used the word ‘runcible’ solely for its sound quality; it was assumed that he intended it to have no denotative content. But later scholarship has questioned this assumption and has proposed a number of alternative possibilities.
The most widely accepted possibility holds that a runcible spoon is in fact a slotted spoon. If so, that would make it a very poor eating utensil indeed. But that might have been Lear’s point exactly.
Lear uses the word ‘runcible’ elsewhere in his writing, applying it whimsically to a cat and a goose but less whimsically to a wall. What could a spoon and a wall possibly have in common? They could be other non-orientable objects, objects containing a Mobius strip, but this time in three dimensions.
Three dimensional objects that contain a Mobius strip are called ‘Klein Bottles’. In our world of 3 spatial dimensions, Klein Bottles are not physically realizable, but if they were, they could hold no liquid. Why? Because like all non-orientable objects, they are one sided and therefore have no inside or outside.
In this admittedly speculative interpretation, the ‘runcible spoon’ is the three dimensional correlate of the Piggy-wig’s two dimensional ring. It suggests that there is a consistently non-orientable topology in the eschatological kingdom, “the land where the Bong-tree grows”.
Despite the extreme difficulty of eating with a non-orientable utensil, our heroes seem well satisfied with their wedding feast, perhaps another example of ‘spiritual food’.
Dance: And so we come to the final dance: “hand in hand…on the edge of the sand…by the light of the moon”. What a climax! A dance of Sufi dervishes! What better metaphor than dance to symbolize the resolution of all conflict into universal harmony and what better place to dance than at the ‘edge’ of spacetime (the point where spacetime disappears). One cannot help but be reminded of Sandymount Strand in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Moon: And the final dance is by the light of the moon. This takes us back to a much earlier line, at the very outset of the journey, when “the Owl looked up to the stars above”. There is a consistent astronomical element in this poem and elsewhere in eschatological literature.
Hamlet’s Mill (Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend), for example, tracks connections between astronomy and eschatology across multiple cultures and through numerous works of literature.
While some of the arguments above might not appeal to every reader, there can be little doubt that The Owl and the Pussy-cat embodies profound eschatological content. But whether that content was intentional, whether Lear had that message in mind when we wrote the poem, is another matter entirely.
It is our position in this collection of essays that the artist’s intentions are of merely historical significance. A work of art exists independent of the intention of its creator. That does not in any way demean the role of the artist, however. The artist is a lightning rod, channeling the rhythms of the cosmos into a medium (painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, etc…). To possess the sensitivity to capture those rhythms and the integrity to transcribe them faithfully into the medium is a great gift and a great achievement. By comparison, mere intentionality pales and is entirely beside the point.
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