Famous Poets: Gelett Burgess

When I was a kid, my dad would often recite poems to me, especially short, funny ones. A couple that I loved were a nursery rhyme called “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear” and a short poem called “The Purple Cow,” written by a man named Gelett Burgess, which read:

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.

Gelett Burgess

Gelett Burgess was an American writer, poet, and humorist, who was famous for his children’s poetry. Born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 30, 1866, Burgess moved to San Francisco, California in 1887 after graduating college. There he began his career as a freelance artist and illustrator before turning to writing just a few years later.

Goops and How to Be Them by Gelett Burgess

One of Burgess’s most famous works is The Goops, a series of illustrated children’s poems. The Goops poems feature a group of mischievous and misbehaving children who are taught lessons about manners and good behavior through lighthearted verse and playful black-and-white illustrations. He first published these poems in a magazine called “The Lark” that he created with a group of friends, including children’s poet and mystery writer Carolyn Wells (who happens to be one of my all-time-favorite poets).

The Lark by Gelett Burgess

His poem “The Purple Cow” also first appeared in The Lark in 1895. It became such a famous poem that strangers would often recite it to him. While this was meant to show that they liked the poem enough to memorize it, Burgess eventually became so sick of hearing it that he wrote the following sequel, which he published in The Lark in 1897:

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!

In addition to his Goops books, Burgess wrote other poetry books for children, including The Burgess Nonsense Book, as well poetry for adults, short stories, and novels. He even wrote a dictionary of words he invented called Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, in which he coined the word “blurb,” which is still commonly used today.

Burgess Unabridged by Gelett Burgess

Burgess passed away in 1951, but his work has continued to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. His poetry and children’s books have been widely anthologized and remain popular to this day. His unique style and sense of humor made him a beloved figure in American literature. If you liked “The Purple Cow” and its sequel, you can read a few more of his short, silly poems here.