In praise of nonsense lit

Nonsense literature is not just for kids!  I’m convinced that adults enjoy it as much as, or perhaps even more than, the ankle biters among us. And not only do we enjoy it, but we need it, at least once in a while. Why? Because in its pure state nonsense lit is everything grown-ups are not supposed to be: unexpected, fun, weird, silly, nonsensical, grotesque, non-PC.  It is perhaps the ultimate literary expression of freedom. And the best thing is, you can read into it what you want. You think it’s an allegory that points to the deep-dark heart of the human condition? Then that’s what it is. You think it’s just a rhyme to pass the time? Fine by me.

Though you can get carried away with literary, socio-economic, political, psychological, etc. etc. theories about nonsense lit, I won’t. I’ll take it as it comes, thank you.  And I like it best when it comes in the form of poetry, including nursery rhymes and limericks. (Although Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels are nothing to sniff at—but more of that later.)

One of my favorite nonsense poems is The Owl And The Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear, master of the limerick. The Owl And The Pussy-Cat is not a limerick, of course, but a narrative poem about a romance between—of all things—an owl and a cat who end up happily ever after in wedded bliss. It’s silly, it’s joyful, it’s fantastic (in both senses of the words). What’s not to love?

A lot, apparently. I was idly perusing the Guardian newspaper online one morning, when I came across the rather startling news that Terry Jones of Monty Python fame had been commissioned by the Royal Opera to write a libretto based on The Owl And The Pussy-Cat (yes, really:  Owl & Pussycat).  But here’s the clincher: he dislikes the poem. He thinks it’s, well, nonsense. And what is more, it’s nonsense without meaning. I was so astounded I almost choked on my coffee. Nonsense without meaning? What is the world coming to?

However, I do sympathize: getting a near-opera-length libretto out of the old O & P must be a bit like wringing blood from a stone. Jones apparently solved this conundrum by deciding to write a libretto that is a prequel to the poem (and which, I assume contains only sensible, meaningful material). The likelihood of me seeing and hearing the finished work is slim, given it’s very limited season and venue, but I’m nevertheless agog with curiosity. If anyone gets to see it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Here’s the poem in all its meaningless glory.  Feel free to read into it what you like.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

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.

Edward Lear, 1871

Leave a comment


  1. Jenny Gruzdev

     /  July 27, 2012

    Love it, nice to smile!!


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