Pooping, Mewling and Puking: Iona Opie’s Babies: An Unsentimental Anthology (1990)

 “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Carl Sandburg, Remembrance Rock (1948), chapter 2.

At first the infant, Mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.”

Shakespeare, As You Like It, (1599),  II. vii.

One of the above didn’t make the  cut in Iona Opie’s anthology of poems, songs, quotable quotes, and anecdotes about the less admissible feelings babies inspire in new parents, siblings, the childless, and anyone who wonders momentarily if it wasn’t all a huge mistake.

It may come as a surprise to those who revere the monumental works of scholarship on the oral culture and lore of childhood Iona Opie co-authored with her husband Peter, that she did not labor under the illusion that normal boys and girls trailed clouds of glory as a matter of course. Much closer to the mark is this wonderfully succinct characterization of young human beings in the  Lore and Language of Children (1959) as “the greatest of savage tribes.”   This volume was not intended for seekers of sticky-sweet, inspirational sayings for baby shower invitations or birth announcements: it is for someone walking the floor with a colicky infant or anyone who has changed one too many diapers in one morning—the people on the front line of childcare day in and day out those first five exhausting years. And, I suppose, those who survived the experience, still love their children, and can laugh about it.

Cotsen recently acquired sixty-eight of the pen-and-ink and wash drawings by Australian illustrator Bob Graham, recipient of the 2000 Smarties and 2002 Kate Greenaway awards and a 2012 nominee for Hans Christian Andersen Award, executed with glee for Iona’s least-known and funniest work about childhood, which is a particular favorite of mine,   An added bonus is a three-ring binder containing Iona’s typescript of an interim version of the manuscript.

Here are some of Graham’s droll drawings and the selections (or excerpts) they accompany.

Paternal disillusionment

Needles and pin, needles, and pins,/ When a man marries his trouble begins;/ Blankets and sheets, blankets and sheets,/ When a man marries he’s bothered wi’ geits [children]


Paternal schizophrenia

Thou enviable being!/ No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky forseeing,/ 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 thistledown,/ Promptin the face grotesque, and antic brisk/ With many a lamblike frisk–/ (He’s got the scisssors, 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 tell you what, my love,/ I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)

Thomas Hood, “Parental Ode to my Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months,” Blackwood’s Magazine, Feb. 1837.

An Old Bachelor’s Meditation

What a lot of nasty little ugly babies in the streets,/ Being wheeled about in those confounded little chairs one meets!/ I mean those Perambulators, pushed by stupid, careless, blind,/ Lazy dawdling, idle, addle-headed servant girls behind./ Litte screaming chits of creatures, little wryfaced roaring brats,/ With their little absurd bows and feathers in their silly hats,/ Foolish little coats and jackets, flimsy little fancy frocks:/ Chubby faces, turned-up noses, and preposterous curly locks! 

“Perambulators and Pedestrians or, Mr. Crosswig’s Annoyance”

Toilet-training: The victim’s view

Who took me from my nice warm cot,/ And sat me on the cold cold pot/ Whether I wanted to or not?/  My Mother.

A parody of the classic19th-century poem on female self-sacrifice by Ann Taylor, “My Mother.”

Learning from mistakes

Once the pixies stole a baby,/ But it’s only fair to say/ That they very soon returned it,/ And on the very self-same day: /Who blames ‘em? 

Anon. Recitations, ed. B. Heitland, 1919.

At least they are adorable some of the time…

“Love from your friend Peter Rabbit:” Beatrix Potter’s Miniature Letters to Jack Ripley Acquired by the Cotsen

CUMBRIA, UK – MAY 30TH 2016: Beatrix Potters writing desk at Hill Top – a 17th Century House once home to childrens author Beatrix Potter, taken on 30th May 2016.

Over the years Beatrix Potter composed picture letters to children she knew.  Noel Moore, the eldest son of her friend and last governess Annie Carter Moore, was especially lucky.  Miss Potter sent him a version of what became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. ne of Noel’s little brother Eric was the recipient of a draft of The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher and Molly Gaddum was sent another one.   Those two picture letters of Jeremy Fisher are among the greatest treasures of Cotsen’s Beatrix Potter collection.

Between nineteen naughts and the early 1920s, Miss Potter wrote teeny-tiny unillustrated letters from her characters in the little books to her young fans.  These miniature manuscripts do not come on the market very often and Mr. Cotsen wasn’t able to acquire any examples while building the Potter collection. Judy Taylor, the Potter scholar, succeeded in tracking down a quite a number, which she published in Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter (1992).    But another Potter devotee, the late Mary K. Young, purchased in the 1990s the four to Master Jack Ripley, of Gloucestershire, whose father was a breeder and trainer of Argentine polo ponies.  She loaned them to the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Grolier Club in 2000.   It came as something of a surprise that he highlights of Mary Young’s collection were to be auctioned during the pandemic by Doyle’s in New York City.  The sale was not especially well-publicized, but with a derring do, and enthusiastic support from the Friends of the Princeton University Library and John Logan, the English Literature bibliographer, and a canny agent to obtain the letters for Cotsen.

Here they are, as photographed in Judy Taylor’s book.  The letters are matted and framed and my poor cell-phone camera simply wasn’t up to the challenge.   At least these reproductions have transcripts of all the letters, which makes it easier to make out the messages from Peter Rabbit, Josephine Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and Mr McGregor.

With a second heartfelt thanks to the Friends and to John Logan for making this fabulous acquisition possible.