- Virginia Johnson
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 and the Pussycat is a funny sort of poem indeed and only one of Mr. Lear's many nonsense verses. Anyone who would travel along with a Pobble who has no toes or take a sail in a sieve with the blue-handed Jumblies is welcome to be a friend of Mr. Lear.
Edward Lear began life in a hard way. He was the youngest of twenty children, and his harried mother had no time for him, so his older sisters raised him. He had spells of epilepsy as well as asthma and later rheumatism, or "assma roomtizim" as he would call it. Edward was sometimes very sad, but he taught himself to draw and loved to play with words. When he was sixteen he went to live with his beloved sister Ann in London and supported them both with his drawings of flowers and butterflies.
He was given permission to draw the parrots at the Regent Park Zoo, and these prints were so well regarded that the heir of the Earl of Derby asked him to draw the many animals in his own menagerie. While working at the Earl's estate, he found time to make up silly limericks for his patron's family to enjoy. These would be published as the popular Book of Nonsense in 1846. Yet and still, Lear wanted to be a great artist. He studied to become a "landskip" painter, and traveled about Italy and the rest of Europe. He wrote and illustrated his adventures, to the delight of Queen Victoria, who asked him to give her drawing lessons!
Lear wrote "The Owl and the Pussycat" in the 1860s for the three-year-old child of a friend who was sick at Christmas. He wrote more nonsense verses after that which became as popular as his limericks. Edward Lear loved to make up silly words, and he loved to entertain children. He never married, and was sometimes lonely, but used his time to travel the world and "make little folks merry" with his verses.
At last he settled in Italy with his good cat, Foss, and began to paint again and enjoy gardening. He never forgot the child in himself and wrote in his diary at the age of seventy-one, "Life today is happier than this child deserves..."
The CRRL owns two excellent introductions to Edward Lear, The Nonsense Poems of Edward Lear illustrated by Leslie Brooke and How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear featuring his own drawings, with an introduction and notes by Myra Cohn Livingston. His Nonsense Stories and Poems is also available on compact disc for listening in the car or anytime.