The Children’s Hour

The Children’s Hour

Today’s poems are about children in honour of my new nephew Harry Christopher Willing, and also for all my friends who are juggling their jobs, their children and their home life in these difficult times.

This week’s poems are:

Next week I’ll select some love poems, to mark our wedding anniversary.

Poem 7. A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months

Play on, play on,
My elfin John!
Toss the light ball – bestride the stick –
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)

Thomas Hood (1799—1845)

Thou happy, happy elf!
(But stop, – first let me kiss away that tear) –
Thou tiny image of myself!
(My love, he’s poking peas into his ear!)
Thou merry, laughing sprite!
With spirits feather-light,
Untouch’d by sorrow, and unsoil’d by sin –
(Good heav’ns! the child is swallowing a pin!)

Thou little tricksy Puck!
With antic toys so funnily bestuck,
Light as the singing bird that wings the air –
(The door! the door! he’ll tumble down the stair!)

Thou darling of thy sire!
(Why, Jane, he’ll set his pinafore a-fire!)
Thou imp of mirth and joy!
In Love’s dear chain so strong and bright a link,
Thou idol of thy parents – (Drat the boy!
There goes my ink!)

Thou cherub – but of earth;
Fit playfellow for Fays, by moonlight pale,
In harmless sport and mirth,
(That dog will bite him if he pulls its tail!)
Thou human humming-bee, extracting honey
From ev’ry blossom in the world that blows,
Singing in Youth’s Elysium ever sunny,
(Another tumble! – that’s his precious nose!)

Thy father’s pride and hope!
(He’ll break the mirror with that skipping-rope!)
With pure heart newly stamp’d from Nature’s mint –
(Where did he learn that squint?)
Thou young domestic dove!
(He’ll have that jug off, with another shove!)
Dear nurseling of the hymeneal nest!
(Are those torn clothes his best?)
Little epitome of man!
(He’ll climb upon the table, that’s his plan!)
Touch’d with the beauteous tints of dawning life –
(He’s got a knife!)

Thou enviable being!
No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky foreseeing,
Play on, play on,
My elfin John!
Toss the light ball – bestride the stick –
(I knew so many cakes would make him sick!)
With fancies, buoyant as the thistle-down,
Prompting the face grotesque, and antic brisk,
With many a lamb-like frisk,
(He’s got the scissors, snipping at your gown!)
Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)

Balmy and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star, –
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove, –
(I’ll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)

This is such a funny poem. It mixes the father’s natural pride in his son with his exasperation at the constant scrapes the child gets into. I love the contrast between “Thou pretty opening rose!” and the next line, “Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!” Young John certainly seems to be a lively boy with an inexhaustible appetite for trouble or perhaps the poet is overprotective.

Hood was an English poet, author and humourist who wrote regularly for magazines including Punch. He was born in London but suffered from weak health and eventually went to live with relations in Dundee. Returning to London, he learnt the art of engraving and became sub-editor of The London Magazine and he married and had two children. He wrote a lot of comic verse and was apparently fond of practical jokes, which he usually played on his family. His health was never strong and he wrote much of his works from his sick-bed; in those times, there was little or no support for the sick and disabled but a number of friends petitioned Sir Robert Peel (who was an admirer of Hood’s) to put Hood on the civil pension list; Peel did so and paid Hood’s wife Jane £100 (over £12,000 in 2020) to help to clear the family’s debts. Jane only survived her husband by 18 months and their children were afterwards maintained by an annual £50 pension arranged by Lord John Russell, grandfather of Bertrand Russell.

Poem 8. The Children’s Hour

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807—1882)

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

Longfellow eloquently describes the love we feel for our children, and the love they have for us in return. Unlike Hood’s father, this one is more experienced, and the children are older. He likens their onset to the storming of his castle, and himself to the moustached, wily captain of the guard who will capture all three girls to keep forever in the fortress of his heart.

Hatto II, the Bishop of Bingen, was a legendarily cruel ruler of Mainz who oppressed his peasants and when they dared to rebel against him during a famine, promised to feed them with his stored grain but locked them in an empty barn instead and had his servants set fire to it, deriding their death cries: “Hear the mice squeak!”

On returning to his castle, he was instantly overrun by hordes of mice and fled to a tower across the Rhine; the mice followed him, drowning in their thousands in the river but ultimately overwhelming the tower and consuming the archbishop alive. Longfellow likens his plight to that of the archbishop, beset on every side, but in this case by the kisses of loving daughters rather than the teeth of vengeful rodents.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a popular American poet and professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine and later at Harvard. He was a contemporary and friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne and met Washington Irving who encouraged him to pursue a literary career. Longfellow married twice, both marriages ending in tragedy. His first wife, Mary, died after a miscarriage while they were travelling abroad; his second wife, Frances, died after her dress caught fire in an accident. Longfellow was badly burned himself as he attempted to save her and wore a beard thereafter to cover his facial injuries. He never fully recovered from this terrible event, describing himself as “inwardly bleeding to death”. He had six children from his marriage to Frances: Charles, Ernest and Fanny as well as “Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, and Edith with golden hair.”


Poem 9. Dutch Lullaby

So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea

Eugene Field (1850—1895)

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of misty light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sung a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,
But never afeard are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
For the fish in the twinkling foam,
Then down from the sky came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home;
‘T was all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘t was a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three,—
And Nod.

This lullaby has a sleepy, dream-like quality with the repeated “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” at the end of each verse. Putting the names on separate lines makes me think of struggling to keep tired eyes open when the need for sleep is overwhelming. It evokes the sense of a mother reciting a nursery rhyme to her baby and I like the way it brings the child into the poem in the last verse, the way a mother might do.

Eugene Field was an American journalist and writer known as the “poet of childhood” because he published many poems for and about children. He had eight children with his wife, so there was plenty of source material. Like Hood, he died tragically young, suffering a fatal heart attack at only 45 years old. There are numerous memorials to him in the United States: many primary schools are named for him, and there are statues of Wynken, Blynken and Nod in the park near Field’s home in Denver and in Wellsborough, Pennsylvania.