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How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!

The magnificent Edward Lear, who described himself as “3 parts crazy—and wholly affectionate,” found his way into the Times’ Arts Beat this past week. The piece begins: “Ever wonder what became of the owl and the pussycat from Edward Lear’s famous 1870 poem? Last seen, they ‘danced by the light of the moon’ after having been married by a turkey.” But wait, that’s not right. When Lear died in San Remo in 1888, he left behind a number of unfinished poems, including a sequel to “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” Here are the opening lines:

Our mother was the Pussy-cat, our father was the Owl,
And so we’re partly little beasts and partly little fowl,
The brothers of our family have feathers and they hoot,
While all the sisters dress in fur and have long tails to boot.
We all believe that little mice,
For food are singularly nice.
But what of that?

What of that, indeed? The original poem, which Lear set to music and sang to children, requires no sequel. It’s perfectly strange, perfectly complete: one of Lear’s great gifts to the universe. (“I like to think,” Lear once wrote, “that if a man ain’t able to do any great service to his fellow critters, it is better (than nothing) to make half a million children laugh innocently.”) Or if we need to imagine a sequel, why not borrow from British poets who admired Lear but who charted their own, less innocent paths? The owl and the pussycat could follow the example of Auden’s husband and wife in “O What Is That Sound,” with one betraying the other as the soldiers approach. Or they could find themselves in Larkin’s cramped quarters, where, talking in bed, it “becomes still more difficult to find
 / Words at once true and kind, 
/ Or not untrue and not unkind.”

Anyway, as you can probably guess, a sequel to the poem has now been published: The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat, by the outgoing British Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson. The new book begins: “The Owl and the Pussy-cat woke the next day / To find that their ring had gone. / They wept in the shade of the Bong-tree glade / Where never the sun had shone.” (Following my line of thinking above: The poem should stop here, right? It would be laugh-out-loud dark.) Donaldson’s sequel continues in the fashion of the original—though the means of conveyance has changed: instead of a boat, it’s a balloon. We even get a glimpse of Lear’s runcible spoon. (A word of caution, for those wishing to pursue the etymology of “runcible”: it’s a neologism with no specific meaning. Here’s Lear, in an 1886 diary entry: “Letter from . . . a school mistress in St Petersburg, wanting to know the meaning of the word ‘runcible’!!”)

I’m trying not to be too irritatingly grumpy about all of this (in fairness, Donaldson’s reading from the book is quite charming), but, my god, take a look at the publisher’s promotional copy: “Full of enchanting lyricism this new rhyme, beautifully illustrated by Charlotte Voake, promises to be as important and successful as the original.” What an awful blurb, and not just for that missing comma after “lyricism.” Compare 10 Things I Hate About You: “promises to be as important and successful as the original.” Or a small model of the solar system: “promises to be as important and successful as the original.”


owl and pussycat