There is only a subtle difference between the rhetorical questions posed by "Cat Lessons" and "Mister Octopus".
In “Cat Lessons” these questions are rhetorical because cats are unable to respond in the spoken language of the poem's speaker (animals, after all, do not speak--especially not in English verse). This speechlessness is contrasted with the cat’s ability to respond sufficiently nonetheless (see “Commentary on ‘Cat Lessons’”).
For “Mister Octopus”, however, the supposedly rhetorical questions posed to the subject serve to produce no meaningful answers at all (rhetorical or otherwise).
Needless to say, knowing the Doctor's poem was trying to guile me into thinking it meaningless, I dug deeper.
I discovered that unlike the majority of the animal kingdom, octopi do not simply send messages to their appendages, move them in accord with this designated command, and return that signal finally to the brain in acknowledgment of a completed action. An octopus’s neurons are located in the arms themselves and thus assert autonomy over the actions suggested by the central brain. Often, in fact, the arms may initiate action without outside command (ie. to convey food to the beak, to emulate characteristics of a more fearsome creature, or to camouflage itself etc.). In addition to this loose authority of brain over limb, there are as well no channels relaying the actions of the limbs back to the brain for consideration. The brain is essentially limited to understanding the action of its eight limbs via its observation of them through the eyes. Fortunately for the octopus, these are tremendously acute.
It is unlikely that an octopus, or for that matter, any human observer knows the specific reason why it has eight limbs. This makes the question rhetorical not only because an octopus cannot speak or communicate the answer otherwise, but also because the response to the eight limb question is locked somewhere in the unwritten and perhaps unknowable history of octopus adaptation and evolution. If survival of the fittest played a factor, there is the chance that the octopus had an edge over the would-be present day septopus or hexopus. Perhaps at one time even there existed a nonopus or a decopus, but, as we now know, eight limbs proved ideal. In any event, neither humans nor octopi are capable of answering the question laid out by the poem’s first two lines.
As far as the last two lines of the poem are concerned, again, the question posed by them is rhetorical again not only because an octopus cannot speak but also because their limbs are essentially autonomous of the central brain to which this question is posed. Since the octopus can observe the action of these limbs notwithstanding their autonomy, perhaps were the octopus endowed with speech it could provide an empirical account of what exactly it has observed its limbs doing. Octopi in captivity have been observed to engage in what is ostensibly playful activity (ie. catching and tossing an inanimate object with its arms). In both nature and in captivity it has also been observed that an octopus may indeed employ all of its limbs to swim, whilst delegating force for consciously contrived directional movement.
I get the sense, however, that Dr. Spectacles has something more tongue in cheek in mind when he poses this second question. What I believe he intends us to conjure between the lines is perhaps the image of an octopus using its limbs for multitasking, or in other words, performing a series of disparate activities simultaneously, be they recreational, domestic or otherwise. If an illustrator of children’s literature were to draft a creative rendition of this “Mister Octopus” character, I am sure he or she would have a field day in selecting an individual task for each arm (ie. bouncing a basketball, painting a picture, directing traffic, putting files in order, ironing an eight-armed shirt, and so on.)
In my studies, this all seemed well and good, but still felt the obligation at the very least to telephone Dr. Spectacles and see if I could not fathom a deeper understanding. My only worry was that he might try to sabotage my attempt at a concise commentary by taking me on a wild goose chase (compare “The First Parachute Tester” and “Cat Lessons” where I sought his assistance with “It Must Be Awfully Nice to Be a Doggy”, “The Drinker” and “An Alphabet” where I did not).
For some reason I could not for the life of me remember Dr. Spectacles’ phone number aside from that there was definitely more than two threes in it. Without much hope I turned to the phonebook. Much to my surprise, I did find one entry, but it was listed as “Spectacles, Dr. – Private Lavatory”. To my dismay, the phone rang on and on, but finally there came the grainy languid voice of a recorded Dr. Spectacles announcing:
It would be foolish to begin describing the multiplicity and range of that which composes my daily schedule. Should you, a member of the public at large no doubt, have come upon the inestimable fortune of reaching me via this line, you would have been rewarded with my conversational prowess (the duration of which would have been limited by that which justified my visit made hereto. Voice messages will be reviewed under no circumstances.
This message was followed by an automated voice announcing that the mailbox was full. After calling the line several additional times in order to get the proper wording for my purposes above, I decided to try Mister Miner’s home phone, knowing that although the relationship between he and Dr. Spectacles had vastly deteriorated, he ought certainly to have the Doctor’s phone number. Unfortunately, the only voice I heard was his own, recorded into a rather ordinary voicemail message, after which, despite having the option, I decided to leave no message.
Having neither the energy nor the ambition to drop over to the Doctor’s house for a visit, I determined to tear my house apart in search of the phone number. Fortunately, just after I began I remembered that I had used it as a bookmark in <i>A Glossary of Literary Terms</i> by M. H. Abrams which Mister Miner had been kind enough to loan me. Sure enough, there it was near the very beginning of the book—tucked in the section for Anthropomorphism no less!
The phone rang several times, after which I heard a silent pause following a click.
“Hello?” I said.
There was nothing at the other end.
“Hello?” I said again, “Butler?”
This time I heard the faint sound of what must have been breathing.
“Butler, it’s me, Seasoning” I said, “Could you put Dr. Spectacles on the line please?”
At once I heard footsteps for a moment or so, followed by a loud knock and then the hushed voice of Dr. Spectacles saying, “Butler, I have told you repeatedly, no outside calls while I am in here! Have them call the public line.”
“It’s all right Butler,” I said soothingly, “I have the number, thank you.”
Quickly, I hung up, dialing the number for the private lavatory and within a single ring I was met with a gruff, “You had best be brief!”
“Dr. Spectacles, it’s—”
“Seasoning, yes, I know,” he said “do not dilly dally, let us have it!”
“What can you tell me about ‘Mister Octopus’” I asked.
“Mister Miner?” he barked.
“No,” I said “the poem, ‘Mister Octopus’, you know ‘Hello Mister Oc—”
“That is precisely what I stated,” he penetrated harshly, “they are likewise.”
“They are?” I asked, puzzled, “what do you mean.”
“The way in which I wrote ‘M-i-s-t-e-r’ instead of the abbreviated form was no mistake,” he said, “it is a scantily veiled jibe at Mister Miner—I am the one who told him to spell his name out that way you know. It has a sense of balance do you not find?”
“How is Mister Miner anything like an octopus?” I asked defensively.
“Answer my question Seasoning and perhaps I will be more inclined to reciprocate—O, you had better make haste.”
“Um, ah, yes, yes, Mister Miner’s name does have a sense of balance when it is spelled out that way.”
“Very good, Seasoning,” he said rather relaxedly, “have your amateur attempts of natural history and zoology unearthed anything interesting and peculiar about the octopus?” In the background, rustling of some kind was audible.
“Well,” I began, “I learned that their limbs often work autonomously and that their brains are capable of knowing the actions of their limbs only through visual observation.”
“Excellent deduction, Seasoning,” he congratulated, “and this is precisely analogous to Mister Miner as a poet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, not following him at all.
“Without any intelligible thought, his hand scribbles words autonomously onto a sheet of paper which he subsequently and falsely endows with meaning, thus duping the whole world,” he said, taking a pause, “you are included, of course.”
“That is a horrendous accusation!” I told him, not believing what I was hearing, “What about ‘The Silver Circle’?” I paused “It came before Simpleism, but is it not charged with meaning nonetheless?”
“Sheer happenstance,” he said wryly, “there have been a good deal of books written. One would be hard pressed not to make the occasional reference to classics or two.”
“But Doctor?” I started.
“Perhaps others will interpret my poem differently—perhaps my hand wrote it autonomously and I subsequently and falsely endowed it with meaning. But one thing is for certain here.”
“What is that?” I asked eagerly, hearing what sounded to be a rush of running water.
“The time is up.”
And my time indeed was up. I heard the click of the receiver at the other end and again I was holding a silent telephone.
Despite what the Doctor may have said, I have contented myself in the personal assurance that “Mister Octopus” is no more than a simple poem that poses an unanswerable question to an unanswering animal. I doubt any intentioned link between the poem and Mister Miner highly. As I put it in my “Commentary on ‘The Neighbour’”, I believe this is yet another example of the Doctor’s anomalous vindictive falsehoods.
Caught in a better mood, surely Dr. Spectacles would have conceded Mister Miner’s mastery as a poet, which at times I fear proves inversely proportional to the Doctor’s aptitude for humanity.