The history of children’s poetry - Poetry - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


30. Poetry


Morag Styles


The history of children’s poetry


Poetry for children before and during the eighteenth century


At the heart of the Puritan attitude towards childhood lies a rock-hard belief in original sin.

(Leader 1981: 6)


Its faith [Puritanism] was an argument as well as an emotion.

(Darton 1932/1982: 65)


Before the eighteenth century most published poetry relating to the young is about how children should behave or what was considered to be good for them, rather than to entertain or feed their imaginations. There are, however, some exquisite exceptions in the shape of lullabies written, perhaps surprisingly, by men. Thomas Dekker’s (1570?-1632) ‘A Cradle Song’ is tender and loving, ‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,/Smiles awake you when you rise’; so is George Withers’ (1588-1667) ‘Rocking Hymn’:


Sweet baby, then, forbear to weep,

Be still my babe; sweet baby, sleep.


Popular culture in the form of chapbooks provided those children and their parents who had access to print with a more robust diet of rhymes, jokes, ballads, heroic tales and extracts from contemporary writing.

Writing in the preface to Country Rhimes, however, that most influential Puritan writer for the young, John Bunyan, showed that, as well as having a nice sense that everyday things would interest children, he was also aware that they needed to like the taste of the medicine, if they were to imbibe it:


Wherefore good Reader, that I save them may,

I now with them, the very Dottrill play.

And since at Gravity they make a Tush,

My very Beard I cast behind the Bush.

And like a Fool start fing’ring of their Toys,

And all to show them they are Girls and Boys.


Even so, there was little light relief in Puritan poetry, though children could find some aesthetic pleasure in the work of both nonconformist and Anglican hymnists.


The hymnists

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) published Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children in 1715. As Pafford, a recent editor, makes clear, this was ‘an early and outstanding attempt to write verses for children which would give them pleasure, but at the same time point and urge to the paths of virtue’ (Watts 1971: 1). Watts believed in kindness in education and understood the power of verse in learning: ‘what is learnt in Verse is longer retained in Memory, and sooner recollected’. Although he is little read today, Watts was extremely popular in his own lifetime and for two centuries after his death: Divine Songs had run to 550 editions by 1918. One of his most famous songs was notably parodied by Lewis Carroll in the mid-Victorian period, a testament to its longevity.



How doth the little Busy Bee

How doth the little crocodile

Improve each shining Hour,

Improve his shining tail,

And gather honey all the day

And pour the waters of the Nile

From every opening Flower!

On every golden scale!


Charles Wesley (1707-88), Hymns for Children (1763), followed in the same tradition by writing some of the most beautiful hymns in the English language, including ‘Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing’. Christopher Smart (1722-71), best known now for ‘My Cat Jeoffrey’ (from Jubilate Agno), wrote some joyful Hymns for the Amusement of Children (1771), while in prison for debt:


A lark’s nest, then your playmate begs

You’d spare herself and speckled eggs;

Soon she shall ascend and sing

Your praises to the eternal King.


Smart’s verse displays a sweetness of touch that was singularly lacking elsewhere, although his hymns never deviate from praising God. Anna Barbauld (1743-1825) was one of the most interesting writers for children of the late eighteenth century. Her work conformed to the standards of her day: anything too fanciful was repressed, and moral tales were her forte. However, her Lessons for Children (1778) demonstrated a new approach to the teaching of reading, and her Hymns in Prose (1781) made her deservedly famous:


Come, let us go forth into the fields; let us see how the flowers spring; let us listen to the warbling of birds, and sport ourselves upon the new grass. The winter is over and gone, the buds come out upon the trees, the crimson blossoms of the peach and the nectarine are seen, and the green leaves sprout.


Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), devoted wife to the Archbishop of Armagh, wrote hymns which still have worldwide popularity, such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Her publications include Hymns for Little Children (1848) and Moral Songs (1849). Her maxim for writing hymns (reported by her husband), was simple: ‘It must be sung, it must be praise, it must be to God’ (Alexander 1896: xxv).


‘In a book, that all may read’: the poetry of William Blake

The first poet of genius to write for children was William Blake (1757-1827), though it could be argued that he was really more interested in writing for adults about childhood and other social and spiritual issues in order to challenge the prevailing ideology of his day.


Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

(from ‘Holy Thursday’)


However, a glance at the title poem of Songs of Innocence (1789) makes it clear that, whatever else Blake was trying to achieve in his poetry, he was keen to communicate with the young: ‘And I wrote my happy songs/Every child may joy to hear.’ The subject matter of Blake’s poetry was consistent with that of other children’s writers of his day: hymn-like poems glorifying God through nature, cradle songs, references to children’s games, birds and animals, even social comment. But, as Heather Glen suggests in Vision and Disenchantment (1983), what Blake was doing in these poems was initiating a debate on eighteenth-century morality. He did not go along with the didactic purposes of his contemporaries and his poems frustrate the notion that there should be an unequivocal moral line presented to children. Deceptively simple, they hide complexities of irony, and the expectations of the reader are frequently subverted. For example, the child leads the adult in ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’ and the sheep lead the shepherd in ‘The Shepherd’; the adult acquiesces with youth’s desire for freedom and experience in ‘Nurse’s Song’; the child finds school a cruel diversion from the joys of nature in ‘The School Boy’: ‘But to go to school in a summer morn,/O! it drives all joy away.’ Unlike almost all the juvenile literature of this period, there is no clear authorial voice instructing the reader what to think. Songs of Innocence can be seen as cunningly contradicting adult dominance and replacing it with the wisdom of innocence and naturalness, qualities which, in Blake’s mind, were associated with the state of childhood; and although his enlightened ideas were too advanced for his age, his work has had a profound influence on poetry for children. As soon as Blake’s poetry became readily available to the public in printed form in the 1830s, it became a stalwart in children’s anthologies.


Romanticism and poetry for children in the nineteenth century


There was a time when meadow, grove and stream

The earth and every common sight

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

(Wordsworth, ‘Ode’ (1807))


The visionary and humanising influence of the Romantic movement (seminally expressed by Wordsworth and Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads 1798) also exerted a huge impact on writing for children, if not immediately. Romantic ideas took some time to percolate into mainstream culture. For example, although Lucy Aikin probably knew Wordsworth personally and had certainly read his poetry, she did not include any of his work in the first edition of one of the earliest anthologies, Poetry for Children (1801). Perhaps, like many of her contemporaries, she considered Wordsworth’s ‘experiment’ too radical for a text for children?

Be that as it may, the first decade of the nineteenth century certainly ushered in a new liberalism in juvenile poetry. William Roscoe’s (1753-1831) The Butterfly’s Ball and Grasshopper’s Feast (1807) and its many imitators were intent on fun, though there is a lesson or two on natural history contained therein. Catherine Ann Dorset (1750-1817), one such imitator, wrote The Peacock at Home (1808), at least as good as the original, though few know her name today. This extract could be said to anticipate Lear’s ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’:


Worms and frogs en friture for the web-footed fowl,

And a barbecued mouse was prepared for the Owl;

Nuts, grain, fruit and fish, to regale every palate,

And groundsel and chickweed served up in a sallad.


Roscoe and Dorset sold 40,000 copies of their two books within the year. Ann Taylor (1782-1866) and Jane Taylor (1783-1824), best known for Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804), were equally successful and even more significant in the development of children’s poetry:


Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky.


As Percy Muir observed: ‘Here, at last, were books that children surely chose for themselves, albeit with the undoubted approval of their elders’ (Muir 1954: 91). The originality of the Taylors did not lie in their willingness to abandon admonitions to virtuous behaviour in children; in fact, the Taylors were keen adherents of the moral tale in verse, and their poetry, for all its gentleness, still demonstrated unswerving moral conviction. Even so, there is more levity in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806) and the invitation to dream and wonder in poems like Jane Taylor’s ‘The Star’ must have come as light relief to many children. Carroll’s parody suggests that ‘The Star’ was still popular more than fifty years later. Indeed, it has deservedly become one of the classic texts of children’s poetry.


Twinkle twinkle little bat.

How I wonder what you’re at.

Up above the world so high,

Like a tea-tray in the sky.


Charlotte Yonge gave credit to the Taylor sisters for what she called their astonishing simplicity without puerility. Indeed, this may be one of the hallmarks of women’s voices for the young; nursery rhymes also share that distinction. Certainly, many women tried their hands at writing in the Taylors’ style. Other successful examples from this period are Sarah Martin’s (1768-1826), The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1805), and the rather insipid Poetry for Children (1809) by Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and Mary Lamb (1764-1847). Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) wrote Conversations Introducing Poetry to Children Chiefly on the Subject of Natural History (1804), where a mother and her son and daughter discuss poetry, nature and manners. It is hard going for the contemporary reader, but there are moments of sublime, if world-weary, poetry:


Where poppies hang their heavy heads,

Or where the gorgeous sun-flower spreads

For you her luscious golden beds,

On her broad disk.

To live on pleasure’s painted wing,

To feed on all the sweets of spring,

Must be a mighty pleasant thing,

If it would last.


Like Smith, Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) has suffered from the declining popularity of poems such as ‘Casabianca’ with its once-famous opening, ‘The boy stood on the burning deck’, although plenty of lesser nationalistic verse has survived. Hemans was one of the most prolific, popular and highly regarded poets of her day; her verse for the young includes Hymns for Childhood (1833). She had five boys herself whom she brought up on her own; Charlotte Smith supported her twelve children by writing - just two examples of women who were successful writers against the odds and whose poetry on its own merits deserves to be better known today.

Sara Coleridge (1802-52) devoted much of her life to collating the work of her famous father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but she also wrote a collection of poetry for children, Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children (1834), including the delightful ‘Months of the Year’: ‘January brings the snow,/Makes our feet and fingers glow.’ Although she criticised the Taylors for their ‘morbid sentiments’, her title exemplifies the continuing current of didacticism in books for children at that time: even a Romantic poet’s daughter speaks of ‘lessons for good children’, although they are at least ‘pretty lessons’.

Mary Howitt (1799-1888) was another prolific writer who wrote dozens of books for children including Hymns and Fireside Verses (1839) and Sketches of Natural History (1834) which contained the famous, ‘Will you come into my parlour, said the Spider to the Fly’. The jolly Jane Euphemia Browne (1811-98) was the real author of the muchloved Aunt Effie’s Rhymes for Little Children (1852):


Oh, where do you come from

You little drops of rain

Pitter patter, pitter patter

Down the window pane?


The Taylors’ influence is also evident in the work of one of the greatest Victorian poets, Christina Rossetti (1842-97). Sing-Song (1872) is the best of a sub-genre of poetry where sensuous affection between mothers and babies could be tenderly expressed:


Mother’s arms under you,

Her eyes above you

Sing it high, sing it low

Love me, I love you.


If Christina Rossetti was to make the cradle song her own, it was the Taylor sisters who opened the nursery door nearly seven decades earlier. Here was poetry that was deeply in tune with little children. A noticeable feature of the Taylors’ work, which Rossetti also employed to advantage, was the use of loving, inconsequential language - the sort of affectionate, rhythmic talk, often quite close to nonsense, that adults tend to use with babies.


Dance, little baby, dance up high,

Never mind baby, mother is by;

Crow and caper, caper and crow,

There little baby, there you go.



There is a direct line, I would suggest, from the Taylors’ Kind Mamma to Rossetti’s ‘little son’:


Come, dear, and sit upon my knee,

And give me kisses, one, two, three,

And tell me whether you love me,

My baby.

I’ll nurse you on my knee, my knee,

My own little son;

I’ll rock you, rock you, in my arms,

My least little one.


Rossetti employs an impressive range in her ‘nursery rhyme book’ - there are ditties, nonsense, riddles, colour and counting rhymes, as well as sad poems of grieving mothers and motherless babies (at a time of high infant mortality rate). Sing-Song is a collection of distinction and it is to be regretted that it has not stayed regularly in print.

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) is known for her charming illustrations, but she wrote some slight verse in Under the Window (1879) which is perhaps most notable for encouraging R. L. Stevenson to try his hand at writing poems for children. Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) is famous for her fiction, but her poetry, such as Songs of Two Seasons (1891) and A Pomander of Verse (1895), is also worth reading:


Sweet chestnuts droop their long, sharp leaves

By knotted tree roots, mossed and brown,

Round which the honeysuckle weaves

Its scented, golden, wild-wood crown.

(‘The Way of the Wood’)


Victorian nonsense verse

The impulse towards nonsense seems to be universal, and is certainly a feature of the lives of young children, but it was ‘between 1865 and 1875 [that] the entire course of juvenile poetry was altered by two bachelor writers who had little in common except an elfin lightsomeness and a love of other people’s children’ (Shaw 1962: 431). Actually, 1846 was the year when Edward Lear (1812-88) published A Book of Nonsense: the other bachelor was, of course, Lewis Carroll (1832-98) whose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was to prove a watershed in children’s literature in 1865.

Lear was first and foremost an artist who struggled all his life to earn a precarious living as a professional painter (he even gave some painting lessons to Queen Victoria). The nonsense verse came about as a refuge from the trials and irritations of his life - epilepsy, lack of funds, an eccentric personality and regular bouts of severe depression. Like many of those writing after him who chose to express themselves primarily in nonsense, Lear felt somewhat alienated from society. The urge to comment sardonically on the conventional world and escape from its restrictions is evident in his verse: ‘My life is a bore in this nasty pond/And I long to go out in the world beyond.’ Friendship with children and writing for them gave him a welcome respite from his problems.

Lear made the limerick form his own, though it really began life some time before in the oral tradition and in written form by writers such as Richard Scrafton Sharpe (1775-1852) with his Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen. Nonsense verse was already a thriving form in chapbook culture, and there were talented humorists with verbal facility before Lear’s time, like the exuberant Thomas Hood (1799-1845):


Ben Battle was a soldier bold

And used to war’s alarms;

But a cannon-ball took off his legs,

So he laid down his arms.


Hood was a popular humorist of his day with a strongly developed social conscience. After his death, his children collected his poems for the young in Fairy Land (1861). He is perhaps best known for his Comic Annual (1830-9), and the poem which begins ‘I remember, I remember,/The house where I was born.’ His robust humour works perfectly in his parody of Ann Taylor’s loving but sentimental poem, ‘My Mother’. The original reads:


Who fed me from her gentle breast,

And hushed me in her arms to rest,

And on my cheek sweet kisses prest?

My Mother.


And the parody (‘A Lay of Real Life’):


Who let me starve, to buy her gin,

Till all my bones came through my skin,

Then called me ‘ugly little sin?’

My Mother.


But it took a poet of Lear’s originality to bring nonsense verse to a wide audience and explore its possibilities with an inventiveness, playfulness and melodiousness which was equalled only, perhaps, by Lewis Carroll in a limited number of poems. Lear was also a talented musician and this ear for musical language is one of the reasons why the verse is so good. He also drew gloriously quirky pictures to accompany many of his poems. ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ was voted the nation’s favourite children’s poem in the UK in 2001. Lear’s Nonsense Songs, his finest collection, was published in 1871, the same year as the brilliant ‘Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ appeared in Through the Looking Glass. Most of Carroll’s best verse is contained in the two Alice novels and Sylvie and Bruno; his verse collection, Rhyme? and Reason?, is surprisingly dull and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (1876) does not seem to have much appeal to children.


Cautionary verse

As we have seen, the main concern of most eighteenth-century writers for children was didacticism. However, Dorothy Kilner’s (1755-1836) Poems on Various Subjects for the Amusement of Youth (1785) offered some amusement as well as admonitions, and she is an early exponent of something close to cautionary verse in this account of a young glutton (‘The Retort to Master Richard’):


How with smacks he each mouthful seem’d eager to taste,

And the last precious drop was unwilling to waste.

But ye Graces! how can I the sequel relate?

Or tell you, ye powers! that he lifted his plate?

And what must have made a Lord Chesterfield sick,

Why his tongue he applied the remainder to lick.


Elizabeth Turner (1775-1846) seems to nod towards the cautionary in her tales in verse, such as The Daisy (1807), but it was the German doctor Heinrich Hoffman who wrote the terrifying and wonderful Struwwelpeter for his small son in 1845. This collection of gruesome verse has excited controversy as to its suitability for children over the years, but has appeared in thousands of editions, even enjoying a popular run in a London theatre in 2003. Cautionary verse found its master in Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) who wrote The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts in 1896 - it sold out of its first print run in four days. Belloc has been a favourite on nursery shelves ever since: children still enjoy the tale of Jim being eaten by a lion today!


His Mother, as she dried her eyes,

Said, ‘Well - it gives me no surprise,

He would not do as he was told!’

His Father, who was self-controlled,

Bade all the children round attend

To James’s miserable end.

(‘Jim and the Lion’)


The appeal lies in the tongue-in-cheek, extreme, over-the-top quality of Belloc’s verse. More Beasts for Worse Children followed in 1897 and Cautionary Tales for Children in 1907. Harry Graham (1874-1936) writes in the same genre in books like Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (1899), although he is more callous than Belloc:


Father heard his children scream,

So he threw them in the stream,

Saying, as he drowned the third,

‘Children should be seen, not heard.’


A later exponent of this art is the American humorist Ogden Nash (1902-71), as in Parents Keep Out (1951).

Three poets for children stood out in the UK as the nineteenth century drew to a close, but only one has lasted the test of time. William Brighty Rands wrote lively and amusing verse in Lilliput Levee (1869) and Lilliput Lyrics (1868). There is also plenty of fun in William Allingham’s (1824-89) Rhymes for the Young Folk (1886) - ‘January/ Bitter very/February damp, Sir./March blows/On April’s nose,/May has caught the cramp, Sir’ - while The Fairies (1883) and the gorgeous picture book In Fairyland (ravishingly illustrated by Richard Doyle) is typical fairy fantasy. But it was Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) who changed children’s poetry for ever.


A Child’s Garden of Verses


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.

(‘The Land of Story Books’)


Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses first appeared as Penny Whistles in 1885. John Rowe Townsend identifies a ‘shifting perspective ... between the author as a child and the author as a man’ (Townsend 1987: 122). Indeed, it is clear that Stevenson himself was aware of this and spoke to Edmund Gosse of his unusual ability in remembering what it felt like to be a child. The collection made a strong impression on E. V. Lucas, a contemporary of Stevenson’s, writing one of the earliest essays devoted to poetry for children in 1896:


It stands alone. There is nothing like it, so intimate, so simply truthful, in our language, in any language ... he has recaptured in maturity the thoughts, ambitions, purposes, hopes, fears, philosophy of the child.

(Lucas 1896: 394)


Some later critics have taken a different view. John Goldthwaite:


No-one has ever lied up a stereotype so sweetly or at this artistic level before ... He enshrined his age for his readers by detailing his own childhood as an habitual daydreamer creeping about behind the furniture, climbing a cherry tree, studying the passing scene through the window of a railway car. The lilting verses are all as beautifully laid out as toy soldiers parading across his sickbed covers in ‘The pleasant land of counterpane’ ... but the seduction is sweet, and generations of parents took Stevenson’s book to heart as the gospel truth of who they thought they had been and wanted to see in their own children.

(Goldthwaite 1996: 28)


Readers must make up their own minds. I believe Goldthwaite is too severe and the fact that generations of children like the verse must count for something. F. J. Harvey Darton, comes closest perhaps in getting to the heart of Stevenson’s appeal:


A Child’s Garden of Verses contains its warranty and a criticism of itself in its title. It is a garden, full of natural flowers growing from wind-borne seeds. It is a child’s garden. Metrically, its verse is deliciously modulated for its purpose. But the title as a whole phrase has something of grown-up after-thinking invention in it; not perhaps an excuse, but a touch of conscious description. Yet it is true that ‘every poem in A Child’s Garden of Verses was a bit out of his own childhood’.

(Darton 1932/1982: 314)


Perhaps it was because Stevenson’s Edinburgh childhood was dogged by poor health and confinement to house and bed, a lonely life cut off from normal activities much of the time, that he had such empathy for the young. Certainly, one of the most powerful impressions that comes out of A Child’s Garden of Verses is the sense of a child’s absorption in the world of play and how it is intimately bound up with the imagination. Michael Rosen has pointed out how Stevenson published in succession three essays on children’s play - ‘Notes on the Movements of Young Children’ (1874), ‘Child’s Play’, (1878), and ‘Memoirs of Himself’ (1880) - in the period leading up to A Child’s Garden. Here is an extract which could almost be taken from a developmental psychology manual:


We grown people can tell ourselves a story ... [a child] works all with lay figures and stage properties. When his story comes to the fighting, he must rise, get something by way of a sword and have a set-to with a piece of furniture, until he is out of breath. When he comes to ride with the king’s pardon, he must bestride a chair.. . Nothing can stagger a child’s faith; he accepts the clumsiest substitutes and can swallow the most staring incongruities ... He is at the experimental stage; he is not sure how one would feel in certain circumstances; to make sure, he must come as near trying it as his means permit ... play is all. Making believe is the gist of his whole life.

(from ‘Child’s Play’; quoted in Styles 1998: 175)


Stevenson made no great claims for himself as a poet: ‘These are rhymes, jingles; I don’t go in for eternity’ (quoted in Styles 1998: 182). He was wrong. A Child’s Garden has never been out of print.


American poetry for children of the Victorian—Edwardian period

In the same period, Eliza Follen (1787-1860), a prominent abolitionist and magazine editor, produced New Nursery Songs for All Good Children (1832) and The Lark and the Linnet (1884), while Clement Clarke Moore, a Hebrew scholar (1779-1863), established his place in history by publishing A Visit from St Nicholas (often known now as The Night before Christmas) in 1823, although doubts have been raised recently about how genuine his authorship of the poem actually was. Sara Hale (1788-1879) wrote a poem that most English and American children still recite today - ‘Mary had a little lamb/Its fleece was white as snow.’ Like Hale, Eugene Field (1850-95) was a journalist and literary columnist who wrote poems of modest accomplishment, some of which are still anthologised today or available in the beautifully illustrated Poems of Childhood (1934). It was his poem ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ which most caught children’s imaginations and it has been published in many editions:


Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night.

Sailed off in a wooden shoe

Sailed on a river of misty light

Into a sea of dew.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s (1807-82) The Song of Hiawatha appeared in 1885 and still enthrals children in Britain and America over a century later, though they usually encounter it in a shortened version; its metre and content lends itself to merciless parody.


'The ordinary rituals of life’: the first half of the twentieth century

Slowly, silently, now the moon

Walks the night in her silver shoon;

This way and that, she peers and sees

Silver fruit upon silver trees.

(Walter de la Mare: ‘Silver’)


Walter de la Mare’s (1873-1956) Songs of Childhood (1902) gave the key to his poetry and his life; the creed by which he lived was based on the premise that childhood holds the key to life and that age brought stupidity, not greater wisdom. Whistler:


He not only kept, spontaneously, the childlike vision, but also continued deliberately to exercise the special faculties of childhood - day-dreaming, make-believe, questioning that takes nothing for granted ... The greater part of all he wrote is either the recreation of experience through the eyes of childhood, or else the absorbed lifelong investigation of how such eyes work.

(Whistler 1993: 10, 11)


This childlike quality in his poetry is very appealing to some, but not bracing enough for others, but most critics agree that de la Mare’s gift was to write exquisite verse with a wonderful eye for detail. He was also the teller of a fine tale:


‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,

Knocking on the moonlit door;

And his horse in the silence champed the grasses

Of the forest’s ferny floor:

And a bird flew up out of the turret,

Above the Traveller’s head:

And he smote upon the door again a second time;

‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

(‘The Listeners’)


His poetry, though a little out of vogue at present, has timeless qualities. As Whistler put it: ‘sometimes in verse, the sentiment [is] dated [and yet] it stands time and trouble, it carries the tang of authentic experience - however elusive, fantastic, fine-spun and minor-keyed the stuff in which de la Mare may deal’ (Whistler 1993: x). His best-known collection is Peacock Pie (1913), but most of his work for children can be found in Collected Rhymes and Verses of Walter de la Mare (1944). He also put together one of the finest and most innovative anthologies ‘for the Young of all ages’, Come Hither (1923).

Rudyard Kipling is better known as a writer of fiction and poetry for adults, but some of the verse in Puck ofPook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), such as ‘If’, are part of our culture, though the stalwart principles of character enumerated in that poem are true to their period and directed only at boys.

After the First World War, perhaps as a reaction, light verse became popular. Rose Fyleman (1877-1957), whose many fairy books include Fairies and Chimneys (1918), is still anthologised today, although her verse is cloyingly sweet. The charming poetry of Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) first appeared in Nursery Rhymes of London Town (1916). The Children’s Bells (1957) contains her personal selection gleaned from the many books of verse she wrote during a long life. ‘Morning Has Broken’ is versatile enough to be a popular hymn still sung in primary schools today, as well as a famous rock lyric. Farjeon is deservedly much anthologised today, and some of her lesser-known poems have been collected by Anne Harvey in Something I Remember (1987).

A. A. Milne (1882-1956) published When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927) to huge sales and mostly rave reviews. There is no doubt that Milne’s depiction of childhood is still full of delight for many young readers, but it must also be admitted in the early twenty-first century that some of his verse comes across as precious and dated. Milne was an excellent craftsman of light verse with a talent for prosody. He was also very funny and sometimes looked at the world from a child’s point of view almost as convincingly as Stevenson did. He created unforgettable characters like that dreadful three-year-old bully, James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree; or Bad Sir Brian Botany who ‘had a battleaxe with great big knobs on;/ He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head’; or the ‘two little bears who lived in the wood/ And one of them was bad and the other was good’; or Mary Jane who loathed rice pudding and Emmeline whose hands were ‘purfickly clean’. Milne was a master within a limited canvas. Children may enjoy the pure nonsense and can relate to the telling interchanges between young and old or the child alone, sometimes even the lament of the neglected child: ‘If I’m a little darling, why won’t they come and see?’


I think to myself,

I play to myself,

And nobody knows what I say to myself;

Here I am in the dark alone ...

There’s nobody here but me.


There is also, at worst, arch, adult knowingness and sentimentality. If the impetus for Stevenson’s poetry was capturing moments of his childhood, rendered as faithfully as it is possible for an adult to do, Milne’s came from a different source. As his son, Christopher Milne put it:


Some people are good with children. Others are not. It is a gift. You either have it or you don’t. My father didn’t ... not with children, that is. My father was a creative writer and so it was precisely because he was not able to play with his small son that his longings sought and found satisfaction in another direction. He wrote about him instead ... My father’s most deeply felt emotion was nostalgia for his own happy childhood.

(Milne 1974: 36)


Children can be cruel. Yet Milne has stood the test of time because the poetry is good. Years of writing for the magazine Punch trained a facility for well-crafted light verse which he combined winningly with genuine concerns of childhood.

Outstanding among poets who wrote in the period after the Second World War and before the 1970s watershed is James Reeves (1909-78), with collections such as The Wandering Moon (1950) and The Blackbird in the Lilac (1952); his work is now available in a single volume, James Reeves: Complete Poems for Children (1973). No longer in vogue and mostly out of print are his near contemporaries, publishing for children in the 1960s, such as Leonard Clark (1905-81) (Near and Far (1968)); Edward Thomas (1878-1917) (The Green Road; Poems for Young Readers (1965)); Robert Graves (1895-1985) (The Penny Fiddle (1960)); E. V. Rieu (1887-1972) (The Flattered Flying Fish and Other Poems (1962)); Ian Serraillier (1912-95) (Happily Ever After (1963)), John Walsh (1911-72) (The Roundabout by the Sea (1960)), and Russell Hoban (b. 1925) (The Pedalling Man (1968)). Poets of an earlier period who often get anthologised for young readers include Edmund Blunden, W. H. Davies, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and R. S. Thomas. T. S. Eliot produced one whimsical book for children, which is still in print, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Elizabeth Jennings published a highly regarded collection for the young shortly before her death, A Spell of Words (1997).