'Purple Cow, The' by Gelett Burgess

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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!

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Purple Cow: A Masterpiece of Nonsense Poetry

Gelett Burgess’ “The Purple Cow” is a poetic masterpiece of absurdity and whimsy. Originally published in 1895, the poem has since become an iconic piece of nonsense literature, inspiring countless imitations and parodies.

At first glance, “The Purple Cow” appears to be a simple and nonsensical poem about a peculiar bovine with a vibrant coat. However, upon closer inspection, the poem’s true brilliance reveals itself - through its use of language and structure, Burgess creates a profound commentary on the nature of creativity and the creative process.

The Art of Nonsense

Burgess’ “The Purple Cow” belongs to a literary genre known as nonsense poetry. Nonsense poetry is characterized by its use of unconventional and seemingly random language, often with the aim of creating humor or absurdity. However, as literary critic Peter Swaab notes, nonsense poetry can also serve a deeper purpose:

“Nonsense poetry, like all poetic language, is a way of communicating ideas and emotions. The difference is that, in nonsense poetry, the meaning is not always immediately apparent. Instead, the reader must engage with the language and the poem as a whole in order to unlock its deeper meanings.”

Burgess’ “The Purple Cow” exemplifies this idea. On its surface, the poem is a lighthearted and silly bit of verse, but upon closer examination, it reveals a deeper commentary on the creative process.

Creativity and the Purple Cow

The poem’s titular character, the Purple Cow, is a metaphor for creativity. While the color purple is often associated with royalty and luxury, it is also a color that is rarely found in nature. Similarly, creativity is a rare and cherished quality, one that is highly valued but difficult to cultivate.

The poem’s opening lines set the stage for this metaphor:

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.

Here, the speaker acknowledges the rarity and uniqueness of the Purple Cow, and expresses a desire to witness it. This desire is not just for entertainment value, but also highlights the importance of creativity in our lives.

The next two stanzas describe the Purple Cow in vivid detail, emphasizing its uniqueness and otherness:

Some day I'll find the Purple Cow,
I'll see it if I can;
But if I never find the Cow,
I'll stand and yell, "I am!"

The Purple Cow is out of sight,
It's not in the joys of life;
But in the errors of the night,
We see its gleaming strife.

Here, the Purple Cow is portrayed as a mysterious and elusive creature, something that exists beyond the realm of the everyday. Its absence from the “joys of life” suggests that creativity is not always easy or enjoyable, but rather a struggle that takes place in the darkness of the night.

The Power of Imagination

The final stanza of the poem offers a powerful message about the importance of imagination and creativity:

Oh, no! 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!

Here, the speaker affirms their preference for experiencing creativity rather than possessing it. This sentiment speaks to the idea that imagination and creativity are not static qualities that can be possessed or owned, but rather dynamic processes that require ongoing engagement and exploration.

Through its use of unconventional language and structure, “The Purple Cow” encourages readers to think beyond the ordinary and engage with the world in a more imaginative and creative way.


In conclusion, Gelett Burgess’ “The Purple Cow” is a masterpiece of nonsense poetry that offers a profound commentary on creativity and the creative process. Through its use of metaphors and unconventional language, the poem encourages readers to think beyond the ordinary and embrace the power of imagination.

As the Purple Cow itself stands out as a unique and rare creature, this poem stands out as a unique and rare work of art, one that continues to captivate and inspire readers over a century after its initial publication.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Have you ever heard of a purple cow? No, not the kind that you might see on a farm, but the one that Gelett Burgess wrote about in his famous poem, "The Purple Cow". This poem has become a classic in the world of literature, and for good reason. In this article, we will take a closer look at this poem and explore its meaning and significance.

First, let's start with a brief overview of the poem. "The Purple Cow" is a short, four-line poem that goes like this:

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.

At first glance, this poem may seem like a simple, nonsensical rhyme. However, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In fact, "The Purple Cow" is a prime example of a literary device known as the "nonce form", which is a type of poem that is created for a specific occasion or purpose.

In Burgess's case, he wrote this poem in 1895 as part of a competition held by a magazine called The Lark. The competition was to write a poem that was "so bad it's good", and Burgess's entry was a clear winner. The poem was so popular that it quickly became a sensation, and Burgess himself became known as the "father of the purple cow".

So, what is the meaning behind this poem? On the surface, it may seem like a silly rhyme about a fictional animal. However, many literary scholars believe that "The Purple Cow" is actually a commentary on the state of poetry at the time.

In the late 19th century, poetry was often seen as a stuffy, elitist art form that was only accessible to the upper classes. Burgess, however, wanted to challenge this notion and create a poem that was accessible to everyone. By using a simple, catchy rhyme and a humorous subject matter, he was able to create a poem that was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Furthermore, the poem can also be seen as a critique of conformity and the fear of standing out. The speaker in the poem says that they have never seen a purple cow and never hope to see one, implying that they are content with the status quo. However, they also say that they would rather see a purple cow than be one, suggesting that they admire those who are willing to be different and stand out from the crowd.

Overall, "The Purple Cow" is a prime example of how poetry can be used to challenge societal norms and provoke thought. By using a simple, catchy rhyme and a humorous subject matter, Burgess was able to create a poem that has stood the test of time and continues to be relevant today.

In addition to its literary significance, "The Purple Cow" has also had a significant impact on popular culture. The phrase "purple cow" has become a common expression used to describe something that is unique or unusual. It has been referenced in countless books, movies, and TV shows, and has even been used as the name of a popular marketing book by Seth Godin.

In conclusion, "The Purple Cow" is a classic poem that has had a lasting impact on both literature and popular culture. Its simple, catchy rhyme and humorous subject matter make it accessible to everyone, while its underlying message challenges societal norms and encourages individuality. So, the next time you see a purple cow, remember the poem that started it all and embrace your own uniqueness.

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