Tuesday, March 31, 2015

For Children Of All Ages

I think of nursery rhymes as pleasant ditties that one recites to children in order to keep them entertained on an idle afternoon or to lull them to sleep at night.  Thus, I find the subject matter of some of the poems in Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book to be a bit eccentric.  For instance, ten poems into the collection one comes across this:

Dead in the cold, a song-singing thrush,
Dead at the foot of a snowberry bush, --
Weave him a coffin of rush,
Dig him a grave where the soft mosses grow,
Raise him a tombstone of snow.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

A few poems later, one finds this:

A baby's cradle with no baby in it,
     A baby's grave where autumn leaves drop sere;
The sweet soul gathered home to Paradise,
     The body waiting here.


My knowledge of children's literature is negligible, but I do know that fairy tales can sometimes be frightening, or have dark subtexts.  Perhaps the same is true of nursery rhymes.  I don't know.  But I can't imagine reading either of these poems to a child as he or she nods off to sleep.

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

However, I will say this:  although the subject matter of the two poems may make them odd "nursery rhymes," there is no denying that they are lovely poems in and of themselves.  And for this I give Rossetti a great deal of credit:  she does not alter her poetic style in a way that patronizes children. She does not resort to baby-talk.  If one were to encounter the poems outside of a book of "nursery rhymes," it would not be apparent that they were written for children.

Here is another example:

Why did baby die,
Making Father sigh,
Mother cry?

Flowers, that bloom to die,
Make no reply
Of "why?"
But bow and die.


The first stanza is perhaps sing-songy (making due allowance for the appearance of death, of course), but the second stanza would be right at home in any number of "adult" poems written by Rossetti.  (The lines also sound like something that Robert Herrick might have written.)

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

How often does Charon, the ferryman who bears souls to Hades across the rivers Styx and Acheron, appear in nursery rhymes?

"Ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."
"If you've a penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."

"I have a penny in my purse,
     And my eyes are blue;
So ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."

"Step into my ferry-boat,
     Be they black or blue,
And for the penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."


According to tradition, Charon requires a penny in payment for his services.  A poem by A. E. Housman comes to mind.

Crossing alone the nighted ferry
     With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the far quayside in waiting,
     Count you to find?  not me.

The fond lackey to fetch and carry,
     The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
     And free land of the grave.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).

Which is the nursery rhyme and which is the "adult" poem?

Charles Oppenheimer, "From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

As I have noted on prior occasions, Rossetti was deeply religious, and a great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse which is intended to instruct and enlighten, and to provide solace.  I suspect that she intended her nursery rhymes to serve the same ends.  She may have believed that mortality is something that children as well as adults ought to face up to. Seems reasonable to me.

What are heavy?  sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief?  today and tomorrow:
What are frail?  Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep?  the ocean and truth.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book.

Charles Oppenheimer, "My Garden at Twilight"


Bruce Harrow said...

Dear Mr Pentz

Another interesting post on your blog. I understand what you say about being reluctant to read Christina Rossetti verse to children at night. With my grandson I read nursery rhymes that include birds being baked in pies, birds pecking off the noses of maids, the farmer’s wife who takes a carving knife to the tails of blind mice, a man dying on Saturday when only born on Monday, a dish eloping (or could it be kidnapping?) a spoon and a philanderer in the making who kisses all the girls and makes them cry. Perhaps if Rossetti’s poem was included amongst these other nursery rhymes it might not seem quite so brutal. Maybe the infant mortality rate and the shorter life span of the 19th century had something to do with tone of the poem? In its way the rhyme about the thrush is rather warm and reassuring, that one will be cared for after death. (As illogical as that sounds).

If you are interested in discovering more about children’s literature, let me recommend ‘Not in Front of the Grown-Ups’ (which I believe is the UK title) or ‘Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups’ ( the US title?) and another book called, ’Boys and Girls Forever’. They are written by Alison Lurie who teaches Children’s Literature at Cornell University. Lurie examines the subversive and dark nature of children’s literature. She is also a wonderful novelist, a modern version of Jane Austen. And as funny.

Thank you for quoting the A E Housman poem. Tom Stoppard’s excellent play ‘The Invention of Love’ about the poet begins with a very amusing scene in which the dead Housman (in possession of a coin) meeting Charon in the after-life. Perhaps you’ve either seen it or read the text. If not, another hearty recommendation.

Thank you for introducing me to the Rossetti.

Unknown said...

And then there is "Goblin Market," unsettling for a child at any age.

BTW, thank you for another wonder-filled posting. I always find something in your postings to turn my day around into something a bit better.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Harrow: Thank you for stopping by again, and for your recommendation of the books by Alison Lurie (which I hadn't heard of) and the Stoppard play, which I am aware of, but haven't seen or read. I did read an interesting interview with Stoppard about the play, which made me put it on my "to do" list.

I agree with you about the thrush poem. "Weave him a coffin of rush" and "raise him a tombstone of snow" are wonderful, aren't they? Your thought about the infant mortality rate in Victorian times had also crossed my mind: as you say, in light of it, including poems such as this might not have seemed odd to them.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

R.T.: Thank you very much for the kind words, and for stopping by again. I'm very pleased (and humbled and flattered) if any of my posts have a beneficial effect!

Ah, "Goblin Market"! Thank you for mentioning it. Another eccentric and odd offering from Rossetti. Which is one of the things that I find attractive about her poetry in general.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.

Sarah Head said...

I was talking about Christina Rossetti to two of my piano pupils this week as her poems are set to music in one of the Fanny Waterman tutors.

I'd also presumed that the mortality poems were part of the Victorian take on child mortality where almost every child was expected to die before adulthood and a good, pious child was expected to prepare themselves for it. Hence "If I should die before I wake..." prayer.

Then there are all the stories which include child deaths - lots in Dickens and even The Waterbabies had Tom drowning at the end so he could stay in the magical world with Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. C S Lewis did the same at the end of the Narnia series - the four children had been involved in a train crash in the real world so they could stay in Narnia and not have to keep going backwards and forwards.

I learned the ferryman poem as a song when I was a child and I believe it has been taken from or is part of a Childe Ballad and has more to do with the fickleness of love in the O Waly Waly version.

I have the 1960s Oxford Nursery Rhyme songbook given to me at the age of eight by my godmother. I have taught my children from it and now I teach my piano pupils. There is so much history tied up in nursery rhymes and I believe most of them came about as Georgian penny street songs or even earlier - you'll know the connection of A ring a ring a roses with the black death and Mary, Mary quite contrary with Queen Mary making fun of her catholic heritage.

I suspect Who killed cock robin has connections with the Hunting the wren songs sung around New Year. Every song or poem has a connection with something. Our problem is when that connection is broken and we lose the hidden inuendoes. Some of the piano books I use have several musical hall songs in them which I remember listening to on 78 records from the 1930s and 40s in their original context. My pupils love the silly verses which go with the music but when I mention musical they haven't got a clue what I'm talking about. It won't stop me trying to explain the connection.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Head: Thank you very much for the helpful information: I clearly have a lot to learn in this area.

I'm ashamed to admit that I wasn't aware of Francis Child's 5-volume English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which you refer to in connection with the ferryman poem. I have since found it on the Internet Archive, and it is wonderful. Thank you.

I am aware by happenstance of the historical events and personages that inspired some nursery rhymes, but I have never researched the subject. I agree that it is a shame that with time we have lost our connection with the origins of nursery rhymes, and much else. This loss cannot be a good thing for the continuity of our culture.

Thank you again for sharing your knowledge. And thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return soon.

Esther said...

Yes, as a child I was sent to bed with the words, "If I should die before I wake...." ringing in my susceptible little ears. It wasn't until I was all grown up that I learned of a more hopeful third verse, which would have allayed some of my fears. "If I should wake for other days...."

I have also seen a toddler reduced to tears by the outcome of Rock-a-Bye Baby.

As Edna St. Vincent Millay has written, "The pictures painted on the inner eyelids of infants just before they sleep, are not pastel."

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, One of my specialisms as a librarian is children's literature and I would heartily recommend Iona and Peter Opie's Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. A volume whose delights are inexhaustible, as is the pleasure of introducing them to my grandchildren, and recovering some of the joy I felt when I first leaned them many years ago.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Both you and Ms Head have mentioned "If I should die before I wake . . .," which was part of my childhood as well. Although, unlike you, I was never aware of the third verse! I presume it was not part of the Scandinavian-Lutheran culture of Minnesota, where I grew up.

Thank you for the quote from Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I hadn't seen before. She's right, isn't she?

Thank you very much for visiting again. I appreciate hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you for the recommendation of the Opies' Oxford dictionary. I recall reading good things about it, but I have never tracked it down. Since receiving your comment, I've found excerpts from it on the Internet, and it looks fascinating. I learned a great deal just from reading the introduction.

As ever, it's good to hear from you.

Steven Docker said...

Lovely post. A few hours after I read it I was reading a novel (science fiction if you must know - we all have our sins - that's one of mine) when I came across the following short poem, related to nursery rhymes, and by the ever wonderful A. E. Housman (though if you had placed it in front of me and asked me who I might have thought the author was, Housman would not have been anywhere on my list).

The Grizzly Bear

The Grizzly Bear is huge and wild
It has devoured the little child.
The little child is unaware
It has been eaten by the bear.

Reading that to a young child at bedtime is probably not that wise. I include it here because it is so very unlike Housman.

Kind regards,

Steven Docker

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Docker: Thank you for the poem by Housman, which is new to me. I looked it up in Archie Burnett's edition of Housman's poems and found a version of it under the title: "The Bear or The Empty Perambulator or The Pathos of Ignorance." Burnett elected to print an alternate version:

The bear, untameable and wild,
Has eaten up the infant child.
The infant child is not aware
It has been eaten by the bear.

I agree: I would never have guessed that the poem was by Housman.

Thank you very much for stopping by again.