A Child’s Garden of Verses

There are two important parts of the Christmas holiday; the first, of course, is the Nativity of Our Lord. Second is a focus on family, and children in particular. Christmas puts me, and many others, into a nostalgic mood, thinking back to Christmas Mass, exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, then going over to my grandparents’ house to have dinner and play with my cousins. God willing, I’ll be able to extend these experiences to a new generation, but with last year’s addition of my nephew to the family children are once again part of the Carroll family’s Christmas.

Today’s book isn’t about Christmas, but it’s relevant at this time of year because it is about childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, first published in 1885 but reprinted many times since. Mine is a reprint of an edition illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith, whose illustrations are what first caught my eye when I spotted the volume in a bookstore. Also of interest is the author; Stevenson is best known as a prose writer, especially for his adventure story Treasure Island and horror classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Does his talent in prose carry over to poetry?

Honestly, it’s a little difficult to tell. Because children are the intended audience, his metres and rhyme schemes are kept simple, and his subjects are all things of interest to children. The length of the poems varies considerably, from a single couplet to a few pages, but all fairly short. None of this, though, should be taken as a shortcoming, as Stevenson’s verse is consistently charming and pleasant to read. Consider, for instance, “Bed in Summer.”

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Poetically, it’s simple as can be. Rhymed couplets of four feet each, except the first line, though its short length and natural language keep it from getting monotonous. Yet, it’s charming because I remember, when I was very young, bed time being a significant concern for me, and in the summer time there was still some light when I had to go to bed – a problem I’m sure was worse for children who lived farther north than me.

I think the book is of near-universal appeal, though there are a few cultural assumptions. One is the famous poem “Foreign Children” which is rather “Eurocentric,” as they say these days, or the multiple poems that assume the child has a nurse or the family has a gardener. Also, small details like doing things by candle-light, or “The Cow,” which will appeal to any child who likes animals, but which likely meant more to those who see cows in-person regularly, as much of Stevenson’s audience likely did.

The friendly cow all red and while,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.

She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
the pleasant light of day;

And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.

Many editions of A Child’s Garden of Verse are illustrated; mine uses those done by Jessie Wilcox Smith for a 1905 edition. They’re all lovely and add considerably to the book’s charm.

Beyond that, I have little to add; this isn’t high art by any means, but if you’re looking for something cosy to read this time of year or want something to share with a child of your own, this is a solid choice. I’ll end by wishing all of you a merry Christmas, and will leave you with a poem about reading, “Picture-book in Winter.”

Summer fading, winter comes –
Frosting mornings, tingling thumbs,
Window robins, winter rooks,
And the picture story-books.

Water now is turned to stone
Nurse and I can walk upon;
Still we find the flowing brooks
In the picture story-books.

All the pretty things put by,
Wait upon the children’s eye,
Sheep and shepherds, trees and crooks,
In the picture story-books.

We may see how all things are,
Seas and cities, near and far,
And the flying fairies’ looks,
In the picture story-books.

How am I to sing your praise,
Happy chimney-corner days,
Sitting safe in nursery nooks,
Reading picture story-books?

2 Comments

  1. WireframeJesse

    Yeah, I remember summer nights where there it was bright enough that I could read by window light. My poetry knowledge at that point was limited to Shel Silverstein, but I do get a warm feeling from these.

    Reply
    • Richard Carroll

      I never read Silverstein, my first exposure to poetry was Dr. Seuss. I’m really not sure what the first lyric poems I would’ve read were. Thinking back, I can remember several prose works I read as a child, but no poetry.

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