Ambiguous Pigs an Excursion into Porcine Poetics and Prosody

By Morgan, Diane | The Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 1990 | Go to article overview

Ambiguous Pigs an Excursion into Porcine Poetics and Prosody


Morgan, Diane, The Christian Science Monitor


This little pig went to market This little pig stayed home This little pig had roast beef This little pig had none And this little pig cried wee, wee, wee all the way home.

THERE it is. Deceptively simple, Annie Minnous's great work, the "Little Pig Poem," immortalized on the toes and hearts of untold multitudes, conceals beneath its smooth surface a subtle complexity belied by the lyric purity of its lines. The amphiboly of the title is only a foretaste of the conundrum of the whole.

Historically, of course, its value cannot be measured, for it is perhaps the first piece of literature in the Western world designed for multi-media presentation. This fact alone deserves more than the cursory analysis which has heretofore attended it.

Toes are an integral part of this great work, adding not only breadth of vision and a certain architectonic quality, but also a sense of deep personal involvement. Although this facet has long been recognized among critics, its central mystery has been left unplumbed. What is it about toes which gives this poem its joie de vivre, its je ne sais quoi, its peculiar and undeniable charm?

It can be seen in a moment that fingers would not do. The poem would grow flat almost at once. Unhappily, an indepth discussion of this aspect of the poem is beyond the scope of this exegesis. (It deserves a Master's thesis, at the very least. One possible angle of exploring this issue might be the interesting fact that pigs themselves have no toes, but instead a cloven hoof.)

Another facet of the multidimensional quality of this work is that it is inherently communal. The poem, in short, does not "work" when recited alone. The propinquity of a second person is absolutely vital. It is then that the real magic of the verse becomes apparent. No one, it seems, is immune to the essential power of the Little Pig Poem when it is properly presented. It forces a response from even the most toughened critic.

Yet, ultimately, these qualities are really peripheral to the great work itself. It is immediately apparent, even to the most casual reader, that even stated baldly, coldly, whitely on paper, the Little Pig Poem is indeed monumental. It seethes, nay, boils with understatement, delicious ambiguity, fullness. There is not a superfluous word, yet one is left with the feeling of something said. And how rare a quality is this today.

The powerful dactyls, the initial demonstrative adjectives, sweep us at once into a new world, resonant of, no - precisely parallel in its structure, meter, and tone to our great American epic "Evangeline": "This is the Forest Primeval" - "This little pig went to market." From the internal evidence alone is it not practically certain Longfellow had the Little Pig Poem in mind when he set pen to paper?

It is now time to examine the poem carefully. The first question to strike the critic is of course: "How many pigs are there?" The naive reader, perhaps checking his toes for confirmation, will answer, "five." But is this really the case? Is it not, in fact, rather less than likely?

We know at once that there are, minimally, two pigs, since one had roast beef (line 3) while another (line 4) did not and, concomitantly, that one went to the market while another stayed home. Both the juxtaposition of the two lines, emphasizing contrast (as well as the laws of logic) persuade us of the existence of at least two, separate, pigs.

Moreover, it can be said with almost equal certainty that the pig having roast beef must be identified with either Pig One or Pig Two (otherwise we would have no thematic linkage between couplets) - although (and here is the great genius of the work) it is virtually impossible to say which!

It is equally likely, for example, that the beef-eating pig got it at the market or raided his own refrigerator. In either case, the austere plaintiveness of line 4 assumes the non-beef-eating pig was somehow snookered. …

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