Thursday’s Tile: Illustrating Poetry

The Sight area of the Five Senses Bench contains many tiles seen only in the mind’s eye, including several renditions of Third, Evil, and Horus eyes, which have special abilities in that realm. There’s even an eyeball with two pupils and irises! Go see for yourself sometime.

As far as I can recall, though, the purple cow tile above is the only one illustrating a poem. I keeled over in peals of kid giggles when first hearing it, which was mid-century, last, making the ditty an old one…. but in researching things a little, I  was surprised to learn it is from 1895, which makes it ancient!

Purple Cow
by Gelett Burgess 

I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you anyhow;
I’d rather see than be one!
Maybe it’s a stretch to call it poetry, yet it is in the vein of limericks, Ogden Nash and my pal Ernie, so I think it does qualify. Apparently the original verse caught on and grew to become a source of torment to Mr. Burgess, who was moved to pen a rejoinder a few years later:
Confession: and a Portrait, Too, Upon a Background that I Rue
by Gelett Burgess
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”–
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!
Illustrations succeed best when mirroring the spirit of their source text, and I think this cartoonish, dippy, unreal cow tile does this so well! If no one has seen a purple cow, the fantasy image is open to interpretation, which then becomes our primal imprint.
Case in point: the images of Winnie-the-Pooh and friends forever in my mind are from the book illustrations of E. H. Shepard and most decidedly not Walt Disney Studios. That’s probably not true for a lot of others who only saw the animation and never the books. A thousand words, people, a thousand words!
Before this edition of Thursday’s Tile concludes, I want to also share with you the fact that the novel idea of a purple cow has gone beyond a fun rhyme. Wine, tobacco, clothing, food, even sports mascots derive from this quatrain of iambic quadrameter, which you can read all about here, if such is your hunger for knowledge.
Until we meet again, enjoy all your chimerical referents, wherever you encounter them, but, take it from Mr. Burgess, keep it to yourself if a slap-happy Muse whispers verse about them into your head!
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