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From The Fortnightly Review. SOME NOTES ON POETRY FOR CHILDREN.
The mass of material which is indicated by the phrase "Children's Poetry" is roughly to be divided into two classes, subjective poetry and objective poetry. The subjective deals with children's thoughts and the state of childhood, mostly from within, and very frequently is genuine poetry; the objective is narrative and descriptive, written entirely from without, and is rarely anything but rhyme and metre combined to instruct, amuse, or entertain. (The word "poetry," however, may be retained as a term of convenience, if not as an accurate description.) Examples in the subjective class are the child poems of Wordsworth and Blake; good specimens of the objective class are "John Gilpin," and "James and the Shoulder of Mutton." With subjective poetry children have no sympathythey do not need it, for every child is its own poet; but to grown-up people who once were children and can remember, it may offer rich enjoyment. Hitherto in collections of poetry aimed at the heads of child readers, the relative proportion of the subjective kind, which they cannot begin to comprehend or appreciate, to the objective, which they do like, has been as ten to one or even greater. I think it is time that this injustice should be removed. I think children deserve to have a volume of persuasive, fascinating verse which they may read or listen to from cover to cover without suspicion and without drowsiness, prepared for them with that singleness of purpose which directed Mr. Henley when compiling his admlrable "Lyra Heroica" for boys; while for adult readers might be gathered within two covers a posy of the best poetry about children, fitted by its truth and beauty to keep their hearts green and sweet. As it is, neither of these collections exists, although not a few are to be obtained which hold material enough to form the nucleus of each. For the sake of convenience when referring to them later, let us call these two necessary collections the Grown-up's Anthology and the Child's Anthology.
The best-known collections of children's poetry (so called) are Mr. F. T. Palgrave's "Children's Treasury of English Song," Mr. Coventry Patmore's "Child's Garland of Verse," and Mr. Andrew Lang's "Blue Poetry Book," the respective editors of which seem to have compiled in the main for themselves, and then, by way of averting a charge of selfishness, to have addressed the book to a younger generation. Before looking into these anthologies, it should be understood that one finds fault only with their avowed destination. As a collection of poems about childhood each in its own way is de lightful, although even then not satisfactory. It is as vehicles for the entertainment of young readers that they are so sadly to seek.
Among the total number of pieces in the three collections I find not more than thirty which should be included if the pleasure of the child were the sole concern of the editor. These are, almost without exception, narratives, and as such should be chosen for their interest as stories, and not for intrinsic poetical merit at all; although, on the other hand, a good tale presented in conspicuously bad verse would of course be omitted from such a volume as is here foreshadowed. Each of the three editors draws largely upon Wordsworth. I should take not a line. Each of the three editors quotes Gray's "Elegy." I should as soon think of printing Pope's "Essay on Man." Mr. Lang borrows freely from Burns; and how the future is discounted! On the other hand he gives Peacock's "War Song of Dynas Vawr," which is a discriminating choice, and Macaulay's "Armada” and “Ivry," and, as might be expected, several of the finest of the old ballads. These selections are, I think, good; but I would omit the "Ancient Mariner," as being too good. Each of the three editors offers much of Blake. There, again, I think them wrong. Blake sang of childhood in the abstract, and to men and women whose hearts are right he is a fount of pure joy; but children care nothing for childhood in the abstract-and well for them that it is so. A bad fairy seeking at the cradle
side for a luckless gift could not bestow upon a child aught less enviable than the habit of self-consciousness.
In place of the abstract pieces, and any insistence on the condition of childhood, I should like to see more fun and irresponsibility. The Child's Anthology should amuse and delight from first page to last; it should, although not in itself poetry, stand for poetry in the minds of its young readers, and convince them that poetry is a good thing and a pleasant, and thus, instead of being indifferent to it, or worse, prejudiced against it, they would be prepared for the time when, like Aurora Leigh, they "chanced" (as all of us should) upon the poets in reality. To a mind that is not ready for it poetry presents few attractions, and these are diminished rather than augmented by the encomiastic statements of relatives and instructors. The governess's approval of Gray's "Elegy" does not make its portentous solemnity any less depressing to her pupils, unable yet to perceive its beauty; and to confront the childish reader with Wordsworth's great "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" (as Mr. Palgrave does) may lead him to believe that it is not heaven, but the other place, that lies about us in our infancy.
How many of us there are who have kept from the right attitude towards certain poems for no other reason than that in our young days we were incessantly called upon to learn or to admire them! If, however, we had been given a volume of verse of the kind we were ready to enjoy, which, as I have said, had stood for poetry in our minds, we should have known no such barrier. should Such volume entertain throughout-it should offer legend, narrative, and fun. It should be as gay as it could be made, compatible with technical excellency.
The Child's Anthology would not be easy to compile. On the other hand the editor setting about to prepare a book likely, by the emphasis which it laid upon the blessedness of the state of chiidhood, to turn mature thoughts if somewhat revery pleasantly, gretfully, down the backward way, would find an abundance of fields in
which to glean. And he would find, too, that several sources from which, at the first blush, one would think to borrow largely for the Child's Anthology are suitable only for the Grown-up's. There is, pre-eminently, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Child's Garden of Verses." Only the other day no less a critic than Mr. Traill was remarking upon the gain to the British nursery afforde~ by this book, and yet our ideal editor for young readers would take not more than a mere sip from its pages. He would hold that it is not a child's book at all; he would hold that it is essentially matter for men and women, and is not to be opened until we are on the other and less delightful side of that phase of life of which it tells. To hand the book to children, he would say, and bid them learn it, is to manufacture so many second-hand Stevensons. Every child, more or less intelligently, does this kind of thing for itself, and in heaven's name keep it original! "A Child's Garden of Verses," however, may as well keep its reputation as a nursery classic, for it thus remains one of those books which parents buy for their children in order that they may read them themselves. Every Christmas there is a wave of such reflex generosity.
"A Child's Garden of Verses" is the ideal field for the Grown-up's harvester. It stands alone. There is nothing like it, so intimate, so simply truthful, in our language, in any language. Herein the poet (at last one may use the words "poet" and "poetry" with no reservations) has accomplished that most difficult of feats; he has recaptured in maturity the thoughts, ambitions, purposes, hopes, fears, philosophy of the child. We have speech from
the immortal Child tarrying all his lifetime in his heart. It is our joy, as we listen, to recapture them too. To say "Such an one was I,” "Just so did I behave," "I also hunted behind the sofa back." The man of genius who can draw from his charmed reader a genuine 'I also," is assured of a niche in the heart. The "Child's Gar den of Verses" is one of those books which inspire the feeling-almost the
passion-of gratitude. As we read our eyes are a little moist-with satisfaction; and now, when the words have the sympathetic alliance of Mr. Charles Robinson's pencil, more so than ever. (Never were author and artist in closer accord. It adds matter to our grief for Mr. Stevenson's early death that he could not see these winsome pictures especially perhaps the last.) As we read, years fall away, wrinkles are smoothed out, the envious crow removes his foot, world-knowledge so bitterly acquired evanesces, and once again the man is a child at play, and a bird is singing in his heart as of old.
I said just now that in readi g these verses, we can exclaim "I also." But that was a slight exaggeration. Only a very few readers could honestly say that, for the Stevenson child is a child of genius, removed from the ordinary child by a wide gulf. It is true that a philosopher has recorded his belief that every child has genius; but, even if that be so, there are degrees. It is given to few to possess the wisdom and imaginings of this little gardener. The difference between the child of genius and the ordinary child may be illustrated by quotation. The ordinary child, impelled to verse in the presence of a cow, remarks:
Thank you, pretty cow, that made
Warm and sweet and fresh and white;
and so on. The child of genius says:-
She gives me cream with all her might,
And take these lines, called "System"
Every night my prayers I say,
The child that is not clean and neat,
He is a naughty child, I'm sure! Or else his dear papa is poor. The first seven lines might conceivably have been written by any average young rhymer. In the last-such a sweet reservation!-we have the child of genius again. And there is vision in this description of a fairy land, as a place:
Where all the children dine at five, And all the playthings come alive; and in the thought as he launches his boats:
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Shall bring my boats ashore
vision that would be impossible to the ordinary child. Similarly in this pronouncement on "The Whole Duty of Children," the genius is in the last line:
A child should always say what's true, And speak when he is spoken to, And behave mannerly at table: At least as far as he is able. But, with all deference to Mr. Traill, this is not food for young readers. The fact that Mr. Stevenson is always on the side of the nurses does not make him a writer for the nursery. To press poetry into the service of the disciplinarian is to mistake its function. What could be more delightful to read than this optimistic "Thought," with its humorous vagueness:
The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
-and yet how disenchanting would it be to hear the sentiment uttered by one's own little son! These things should remain implicit in childhood; and when expressed, expressed by deeds, not words.
One reflection that occurs and recurs in childhood, and should be illustrated in the Grown-up's Anthology, finds no prominent place in Mr. Stevenson's pages: the unreason of grown-up people. The spectacle of their elders wasting their opportunities for enjoyment
I would scamper through the greenhouse, preceded him, or have made no con
Chase the cat,
And I'd live on sugar-candy.
Think of that!
It is not given to all children to be philosophers, but every child makes believe, and every child looks bravely into the future, and indulges in generous building schemes. For the best make believe poems, which would constitute a large section of the Grown-up's Anthology, we must go aga: to the "Child's Garden;" there the standard is once more set. Look, for example, at the "Land of Story Books:"
At evening when the lamp is lit, Around the fire my parents sit; They sit at home and talk and sing, And do not play at anything.
Now, with my little gun, I crawl
scious attempts to work on similar lines, none impresses and convinces as he.
Taking them altogether, the poets have not shown themselves to be closely in touch with children: the great ones have tried and failed, and left it to humbler singers—such as Mary Lamb— to give us the true note. But these humble singers are few and far between, as the editor of the adult volume will quickly discover. We might cite Mrs. Piatt as one example of an author who, with a wide, comprehending love for children, has captured in a hundred efforts little of the genius of childhood. Perhaps in all her poems nothing is so characteristic and illuminating as the triumphal boast, in "Child's World Ballads," of the little girl who had visited Edinburgh:
I put my hand on every chair
That said "Don't touch," at Holyrood.
Another good example of an author who wished to produce sympathetic child
There, in the night, where none can spy, poems, but has always broken down, is
All in my hunter's camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read,
Till it is time to go to bed.
1 There is a little poem in Mrs. Woods' recent volume, "Aeromancy," of much the same character.
Mr. Bret Harte. The "Miss Edith" poems are failures, and though he certainly was visited by inspiration when he began "On the Landing," the mood passed before the piece was completed. Two little boys, Bobby, aged three and a half, and Johnny, a year older, are peeping over the balusters at night when they ought to be in bed, watching the guests on the floor below. Here are the best lines:
"Do you know why they've put us in that back room,
Up in the attic, close against the sky, And made believe our nursery's a cloakroom?
Do you know why?"
"No more I don't, nor why that Sammy's mother,
Could it be, Bobby, something that I dropded?
And is that why?"
"Good boys behaves, and so they don't get scolded,
Nor drop hot milk on folks as they pass by."
"Marbles would bounce on Mr. Jones's bald head,
But I shan't try."
To this stage the piece is admirable. Then a discordant note is struck. The next remark of Bobby (aged three and a half) is to this effect:
"Do you know why Aunt Jane is always snarling
At you and me because we tells a lie, That ma thinks horrid, 'cause he bunged But she don't slap that man that called
Do you know why?"
In his desire to make a point the author transgresses fatally. And in the next stanza the Seventh Commandment is jeopardized, just as in the modern novel, and we throw away the book.
Looking forward is a childish amusement akin to making believe. "When I am grown up" is a form of words constantly on the child's tongue:
When I am grown to man's estate I shall be very proud and great, And tell the other girls and boys Not to meddle with my toys.
So says the child in Mr. Stevenson's book. Elsewhere he descends to particulars, and decides that of all professions his choice would be the lamplighter's. But you must have the exquisite little poem in full:
And lets her live-to come in just when My tea is nearly ready, and the sun has pie is
Perhaps that's why."
"Do you know why that man that's got a cropped head,
Rubbed it just now as if he felt a fly?