What Is The Meaning Of The Poem Purple Cow?

by Amy

Full Text of the Poem

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.

The poem “Purple Cow” is a short, whimsical verse penned by Gelett Burgess in 1895. Burgess was an American artist, art critic, poet, author, and humorist who made significant contributions to American literature through his humorous and satirical works. The poem was first published in Burgess’s magazine, “The Lark,” and quickly gained popularity for its lighthearted and nonsensical nature. Despite its brevity, “Purple Cow” has left a lasting impression on readers and has become one of the most quoted pieces of nonsense verse in English literature.

Literal Meaning

At its most straightforward level, “Purple Cow” presents a simple, humorous scenario. The speaker declares they have never seen a purple cow and do not wish to see one. However, they express a preference for seeing a purple cow rather than being one. The literal interpretation focuses on the absurdity of the imagery: a cow colored purple, which is an unnatural and fantastical concept. The humor arises from the sheer impossibility and the speaker’s whimsical preference.

Figurative Meaning and Themes

One of the key themes in “Purple Cow” is novelty. The purple cow symbolizes something extraordinarily rare and unique—something outside the realm of ordinary experience. By stating a preference to see rather than be such a rarity, the speaker could be commenting on the human desire to encounter the novel and unusual while avoiding the challenges or alienation that come with being extraordinary themselves.

Humor and Absurdity

Humor is a central element of “Purple Cow.” The poem’s absurdity lies in the idea of a purple cow, an image so outlandish that it defies logic and reality. This playful absurdity is a hallmark of nonsense poetry, where the primary goal is to entertain and amuse through unexpected and imaginative scenarios.

Commentary on Creativity and Originality

The poem can also be seen as a commentary on creativity and originality. In a metaphorical sense, the purple cow represents an idea or creation that is original and innovative. The speaker’s reluctance to “be one” suggests a cautionary stance on the burdens of being seen as too different or unique, highlighting the societal pressures and challenges faced by those who stand out.

Cultural and Historical Context

“Purple Cow” was written during a time when nonsense verse was a popular genre, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Authors like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll had already paved the way with their whimsical and nonsensical writings. Burgess’s poem fit well within this tradition and was warmly received for its humor and simplicity. The brevity and catchy rhyme made it easily memorable, contributing to its widespread popularity.

Cultural References and Adaptations

Since its publication, “Purple Cow” has permeated various aspects of popular culture. It has been referenced and parodied in literature, advertisements, cartoons, and even business slogans. The phrase “Purple Cow” has come to symbolize something remarkable and eye-catching, often used in marketing to denote a standout product or idea.

Author’s Intent and Commentary

Gelett Burgess himself had mixed feelings about the poem’s success. While “Purple Cow” brought him fame, he often expressed regret that this lighthearted piece overshadowed his more serious literary efforts. In later writings, Burgess humorously addressed his frustration with the persistent popularity of the poem, even penning a follow-up verse to mock his own creation:

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!

Interpretation and Impact

Burgess’s reflections highlight the poem’s unintended impact. Despite his diverse body of work, “Purple Cow” became his most famous piece, demonstrating how certain works can capture public imagination in ways that transcend their original intent. Burgess’s ambivalence towards the poem underscores the unpredictable nature of literary fame and the enduring appeal of simplicity and humor.

See also: The Most Worth Reading Poets You Must Know

Impact and Legacy

Influence on Popular Culture

“Purple Cow” has had a significant impact on popular culture. It is frequently referenced in various media, from cartoons and children’s books to marketing campaigns and business literature. The concept of a “purple cow” as something unique and eye-catching has been adopted widely, particularly in advertising, where it symbolizes a standout product or idea.

Role in Whimsical and Nonsense Poetry

The poem has also played a role in shaping attitudes toward whimsical and nonsense poetry. It exemplifies the genre’s ability to delight and amuse with minimalistic and playful language. “Purple Cow” stands as a testament to the power of simplicity and the enduring appeal of nonsense verse in bringing joy and laughter to audiences across generations.

Continued Relevance

Despite being over a century old, “Purple Cow” remains relevant today. Its themes of novelty, creativity, and humor continue to resonate with modern audiences. The poem’s ability to provoke thought and amusement with just four lines is a testament to Burgess’s skill as a humorist and poet. “Purple Cow” serves as a reminder of the timeless nature of well-crafted nonsense poetry and its capacity to engage and entertain.


The poem “Purple Cow” by Gelett Burgess, though brief and whimsical, carries a depth of meaning that has captivated readers for generations. Its literal and figurative interpretations, coupled with its historical and cultural context, reveal its enduring appeal and significance. The poem’s playful absurdity and commentary on creativity and originality continue to resonate, making “Purple Cow” a timeless piece of nonsense verse that exemplifies the charm and impact of humorous poetry. Through its lasting legacy in popular culture and its role in the genre of whimsical poetry, “Purple Cow” stands as a testament to the power of simplicity and the enduring appeal of humor in literature.

FAQs about “Purple Cow”

1. What is the message of “The Purple Cow”?

The message of “The Purple Cow” by Gelett Burgess is primarily humorous and whimsical. It emphasizes the novelty and absurdity of seeing a purple cow, an image meant to be fantastical and entertaining. On a deeper level, it can be interpreted as a commentary on the desire for uniqueness and the potential burdens of being extraordinary. The poem suggests that while encountering something unique can be fascinating, embodying that uniqueness might not be desirable due to the societal pressures and challenges it brings.

2. What is the meaning of Purple Cow Day?

“Purple Cow Day” is not a widely recognized official holiday, but in contexts where it is mentioned, it typically celebrates creativity, originality, and innovation. The term “Purple Cow” has been popularized by marketing expert Seth Godin to describe products, services, or ideas that stand out from the crowd due to their uniqueness. Thus, Purple Cow Day would be a day to encourage thinking outside the box and celebrating the extraordinary and distinctive.

3. What is the story behind “The Purple Cow”?

The story behind “The Purple Cow” poem begins with its creation by Gelett Burgess in 1895. Burgess was an American humorist, poet, and artist who published the poem in his magazine “The Lark.” The poem gained immediate popularity due to its catchy rhyme and whimsical content. Despite Burgess’s many other works, “The Purple Cow” became his most famous piece, much to his ambivalence. He even expressed frustration that this lighthearted verse overshadowed his more serious literary endeavors, humorously lamenting its lasting fame in later writings.

4. What is the main idea of the poem “The Cow”?

If “The Cow” refers to the poem “The Purple Cow” by Gelett Burgess, then the main idea revolves around the novelty and humor of imagining a purple cow, an impossible and absurd image. The poem highlights the contrast between seeing something unique and actually being that unique entity. It plays on the whimsical notion that while extraordinary sights are delightful, embodying such an oddity may not be as appealing. If “The Cow” refers to another poem, such as “The Cow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, the main idea focuses on the simple admiration and description of a cow, emphasizing the poet’s appreciation for everyday, pastoral scenes.

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