Commentary Magazine


The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America, edited by Donald Hall

The Three W's

The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America.
Edited by Donald Hall.
Oxford University Press. 319 pp. $18.95.

Donald Hall has done an exemplary job in assembling from the pages of long defunct children's magazines and antique anthologies this panorama of poems for American children from The Bay Psalm Book (1640) to Richard Wilbur, John Updike, and Shel Silverstein. Newly discovered gems shine alongside old chestnuts like “The Deacon's Masterpiece,” “The Village Blacksmith,” “Little Orphant Annie,” and “Casey at the Bat,” but it is only after the middle of the 19th century that this becomes the sort of book you can read with your children page after page for sheer delight. Before that, the chief value of the poems for most readers will be as historical documentation of changing views of childhood in America. Linked to that issue is an intriguing queston raised by this chronology of poems about what is fit reading for children and what are the connections between children's literature and adult literature.

The three staples of children's poetry are what I shall call the three w's—whimsy, wordplay, and wickedness. The first two of these qualities, because they involve having fun with words, seem particularly associated with childhood, though in fact they are central in the work of many of the best English writers, from Shakespeare and Ben Jonson to Sterne to Joyce and Nabokov. In the earliest phase of poetry for children represented in the Hall anthology, there is precious little in the way of whimsy and wordplay while there are great double helpings of wickedness, for in the grim perspective of the Puritans children are not creatures apart but fully responsible heirs, like adults, to the terrible legacy of Original Sin. Thus, a chorus of those who died in infancy in “The Day of Doom” by Michael Wiggles-worth (1631-1705) laments to God, “. . . why was our nature,/depraved and forlorn?/Why so defiled, and made so vile/whilst we were yet unborn?” The Lord answers with unswerving Calvinist rigor, “for I do save/none but my own elect,” offering the children only the minimal consolation that, since they did not have the time on earth to sin as much as their elders, they will be allotted “the easiest room in Hell.”

These early Puritan texts are dour and forbidding but in their unpleasant way they have a certain dignity and authenticity precisely because they treat children like everybody else. By the 19th century, with the waning of the Puritan tradition and the waxing of a diffuse romanticism, childhood comes more and more to be seen as a faery realm removed from adult existence. The poets, alas, still had to contend, as did Michael Wiggles-worth, with an appallingly high rate of mortality in infancy and early childhood, so death persists as a frequent topic in these poems. (In our medically happier age, death would seem to be virtually taboo in children's poetry.) But when childhood is conceived utterly without wickedness, as in the saccharine terms of Longfellow's “The Children's Hour” (“I hear in the chamber above me/The patter of little feet,/The sound of a door that is opened, /And voices soft and sweet”), the death of children is translated into the emotional evasion of genteel kitsch: bright souls ascending amidst the softly fluttering wings of angels, leaving behind some cherished toy (Hannah F. Gould, “The Dying Child's Request”; Eugene Field, “Little Boy Blue”; and a number of other poems in the anthology). For the most part, this 19th-century predilection to sentimentalize childhood produces not poetry for children, however much individual poems were imposed on children by teachers and anthologists, but poems that express an adult's need to imagine in childhood all that is felt to be lacking in adult life. The exemplary text in this regard is John Greenleaf Whittier's “The Barefoot Boy,” an effusion about the untinctured joys of evanescent childhood that, I can attest, was still regularly inflicted on American schoolchildren as recently as the 1940's.

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The redeeming compensation for this 19th-century tendency to sculpt childhood in sugar candy is the emergence of whimsy and (a little later) wordplay as central qualities of poetry read by children. I say “read by” rather than “written for” because there is a fruitful ambiguity between what was intended for children and what was appropriated by them. Donald Hall makes the shrewd observation in his introduction that there is a current of childishness in 19th-century American literary culture, the very idea of being a poet often popularly associated with being childlike. The prime instance would be the figure who is arguably the greatest American poet of the past century, Emily Dickinson. She did not consciously write for children, but her peculiar combination of lucid, simple diction and wry, surprising perception has been able to speak beautifully to children as well as to adults. Donald Hall includes several of her poems that everybody remembers from childhood (“I like to see it lap the miles,” “I'm nobody, who are you?” and so forth) but the following piece, which is somewhat less familiar, illustrates equally well the uses of whimsy:

To make a prairie it takes a clover
    and one bee—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

This is what literary scholars these days would call a self-reflexive text. The playfulness has a quiet resonance of larger implication because the graceful little pivot of assertion on the repetition of “revery” with the switched rhyme teases us—both grown-ups and children, I should think—into musing over how we do things with poetry, how the imagination, taking materials from the world, makes its own worlds.

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The wordplay poems, some of them American emulations of Lewis Carroll and many of them indigenous creations, provide an analogous kind of delighting exercise of the possibilities of the imagination. If language itself is a conventional system made up of arbitrary components and rules, then poetry, with its metrical patterns and phonetic couplings, is linguistic convention raised to the second power; and poetry based on wordplay acts out our freedom as language-using creatures to juggle and transform the elements of convention with which we must live. Here, for example, is a marvelous Chico Marx routine by Laura E. Richards (1850-1943) entitled “Eletelephony”:

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant—
No! No! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone—
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)
Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee—
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elehop and telephong.)

The Hall anthology happily illustrates the persistence of this gift for evocative playfulness in more recent poets like Ogden Nash, Richard Wilbur, and Gelett Burgess (author of minor masterpieces like “The Purple Cow” and “I Wish that My Room Had a Floor”). I must add, however, that when whimsy and wordplay become conventions of children's poetry, some poets will inevitably grind them out with mechanical dreariness like John Ciardi, X.J. Kennedy, and the egregious Dr. Seuss. (I include Dr. Seuss in defiance of the literary judgment of my children, who, like countless other young readers and listeners, have passed through an addiction to his jingling nonsense narratives.)

Wickedness, meanwhile, which was pushed out of children's verse sometime around the middle of the 19th century, now not infrequently sneaks in again through the back door via the poet's imaginative participation in the hostile or guilty impulses of the child. The most striking contemporary instance is Shel Silverstein. I will only mention his Clarence, who gets rid of his pesky old parents in a garage sale and buys a brand-new pair by mail order; his Jimmy Jet, who from long hours of TV viewing turns into a television set and is plugged into the wall; and his Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who because she refuses to take the garbage out, produces an apocalypse of refuse (catalogued in noisome detail) that spreads from coast to coast. Though there is whimsy abounding in such verse, it does not seem much of a moral improvement on the punitive harshness of the early Puritans.

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There is, I would suggest, a fine and wavering line between a poet's ability to capture the spontaneity and boldness of a child's imagination and a poet's entering into the rawness and violence that are closer to the surface in a child's consciousness than in an adult's. One hardly wants a poetry for children from which the feelings of wickedness—fear, guilt, aggression, anger—are excluded, but they should ideally become focused, clarified, sublimated, in the alembic of poetic language. A classic case in point is the concluding stanza of “A narrow fellow in the grass,” Emily Dickinson's brilliant poem about the snake. The diction, as usual, is homespun, but it manages to convey, especially through the celebrated image of the final line, a sense at once immediate and coolly controlled of the immemorial terror evoked by the reptile:

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

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