Rhyming Pages

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Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas)

During this trying year of our national life, I’ve longed for the rhyming books whose pages I grabbed at when they were first read to me. Sometimes an almost physical hunger comes over me for Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (Chronicle Books, $19.99, 124 pp.), which first appeared in 1885 under the title Penny Whistles. In these poems, darkness falls; it is time for tea; the streetlamps are lit. A shadow moves in the sunlight but is absent at dawn. The nursemaid, a solid block of silent authority, is visible or expected. The garden, a farm, a railway carriage, or a river may open the world. But the child needs only a few toys, or flowers seen from the ground, or another child as a companion, to fly over vast landscapes or travel the globe. He leaves a toy soldier outdoors through the seasons, hidden in a hole in the lawn, to watch the sky and experience the movements of nature around him; but the child must speak of what the soldier cannot.

This is atmosphere unique to Stevenson, who was an invalid from a young age and voyaged to the South Seas near the end of his short life. Other authors who “don’t grow up” tend to be pretty obnoxious, but this one, entertaining himself in his sick bed with toys and later with words, has a strangely pure appeal, as if he has been lured away from self-pity and self-dramatizing through his own imaginative power. His “Where Go the Boats?” has been set to music and is a lullaby I remember in its entirety. It ends:

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

Among other instant-classic poetry books for young children is Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, $19.99, 176 pp.). It came out too late for me, but when I was babysitting I was impressed by how one group of siblings, assisted by the author’s comical line drawings, dramatized certain of the poems with rather shocking emotional realism.

Some of the collection reprises Edward Lear and other nineteenth-century children’s nonsense poets:

In the undergrowth
There dwells a Bloath
Who feeds upon poets and tea.
Luckily, I know this about him
While he knows almost nothing of me!

Another older strain is the didacticism. There are surprisingly close parallels to the famous German collection Struwwelpeter. For example, the Daumenlutscher or Thumbsucker has the too-tempting appendages lopped off with scissors by a monstrous tailor; Silverstein warns that a snail living in the nose will bite off a picker’s finger. In other verses, horror-story edification is updated. Silverstein’s screen-addled Jimmy Jet turns into a TV set himself. (“And now instead of him watching TV / We all sit around watching him.”) He is a cousin of Mike Teavee in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971), who gets shrunken by the machine. Bad things happen, for reasons; it’s called storytelling.

There is also some nice parody on smarmy literature and music for children. The Little Blue Engine thinks it can, thinks it can, thinks it can, but crashes onto the rocks at the bottom of the hill. Santa, desperate to deliver the toys on time, has to bribe one holdout reindeer with a magical flea. “And the moral of this yuletide tale / You know as well as me.”

Santa, desperate to deliver the toys on time, has to bribe one holdout reindeer with a magical flea.

I received A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (Penguin Classics, $17, 256 pp.) as a Christmas present when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I had a moony, swoony time with it. Essays about Housman turn up from time to time in magazines like the Atlantic, always with an emphasis on repressed sexuality. I wish society had repressed mine. The poet was also a hardworking, brilliant classical scholar, a whip-sharp opponent of academic fatuity, and the best parodist and pastiche writer I know.

Whatever its psychological origins, A Shropshire Lad can provide teenagers with a means to sublimate their self-pity, posing, and cheap cynicism (along with the projection of these onto the natural world and civilization) into music and memory. The World War I generation in Britain was massively influenced by the book, and the good effects trailed into the works of writers as diverse as Orwell and Forster.

For young people, literature doesn’t have to be “good” in the adult sense; it just has to engage them. In fact, the adult connoisseur’s criteria—distance from the very passions written about, challenging experimentation with language and ideas—are likely to put off beginners. Housman’s poem titles alone evoke sighs of adult gratitude that the target audience can no longer fit on our laps and share the reading experience: “When the lad for longing sighs,” “Look not in my eyes, for fear,” “To an Athlete Dying Young,” “Oh fair enough are sky and plain,” etc. Housman was as exuberantly parodied as he parodied others. No matter. Give it, and they will read. And soon enough their taste will improve.

In 1982, Seamus Heaney (disclosure: he was a teacher and patron of mine) and Ted Hughes, the presiding Irish and English poets of the time, published their ideal anthology for beginning poetry courses and the general public, The Rattle Bag (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.95, 496 pp.). Middlebrow, heavy on rustics, animals, irony, and whimsy, this book is an excellent temptation for anyone who “hates poetry”—teenagers and first-year college students come at the top of my personal list.

The more intimidating poets (Dante, Shakespeare, Pound) are represented by some of their catchier works. From the poets with a directness that lifts you by the scruff of the neck (Blake, Hopkins, Auden), the editors chose some less familiar lyrics, which must broaden many readers’ repertoires. Among a lot of crowd-pleasers is G. K. Chesterton’s “The Donkey”:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient, crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

There are too many poets’ poets, each with multiple poems: Elizabeth Bishop, Hugh MacDiarmid, Miroslav Holub, and others. But I praise the editors who, in the middle of a poetry establishment quite snooty about such projects, gathered together so much that people would simply like.

Published in the December 1, 2017 issue: 
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Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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Ancient Identities
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