Gobble, Growl, Grunt: The First Alphabets of Animal Noises

Peter Spier. Gobble, Growl, Grunt. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday and Company, Inc., c1971. Cotsen 85048.

Reading any book of animal noises to the baby, where it is obligatory to squeal like a pig or roar like a lion, is one of the most enjoyable assignments of parenthood.  It can chase away the fog of sleep deprivation, while it stealthily educates baby to connect pictures of creatures with their names and the characteristic sounds they make.  This is “instruction with delight” that twenty-first century sophisticates can believe in after watching the pill go down practically by itself.

Johann Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Second English edition. London: Printed by T. R. [i.e. Thomas Roycroft] for S. Mearne, 1672. Cotsen 127, copy 2, liberally marked up by former owners.

Who was the first to think up such a clever strategy?  The credit should go to Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), one of the greats in the history of Western education. The way he yoked the power of words and pictures in his masterpiece, the Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Nuremberg: J. Endter, 1658), reveals how seriously he took the earliest and least appreciated stage of education.

Comenius insisted that “whatever is taught and learned be not obscure or confused, but apparent, distinct, and articulate, as the fingers on the hands.”  This could be accomplished by  introducing new ideas through the senses, “the main Guide of Childhood, because therein the mind doth not as yet raise up itself an abstracted contemplation of things.”  Beginning with actual objects children already know will capture their wandering attentions so that  they  “grow merry, wax lively, and willingly suffer themselves to be fastened upon them, till the thing be sufficiently discerned.”

He directed educators to begin at the beginning  and teach the student “the Plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living Creatures know how to make” with a “Symbolical Alphabet,” or what we would call much less grandly, an alphabet of animal noises.   By engaging the eyes and ears of the “young A b c scholar,” the “lively and vocal” alphabet would create mental connections with pictures, words, and letters.  “By looking upon the Creatures, till the imagination being strengthened by use,” the child would be ready to graduate to the next challenge, making sense of  pictures keyed to the descriptions: “And thus the whole Book being gone over by the bare Titles of the Pictures, Reading cannot but be learned; and indeed too, which thing is to be noted, without using any ordinary tedious spelling[ [i.e. recitation of tables of syllables] that most troublesome torture of wits, which may be wholly avoided by this Method.”  Comenius suggested that teachers encourage children to identify things they saw around them or to use the illustrations as models for drawing to reinforce the book lessons.  This “School of Things obvious to the senses,” he declared, would be “an Entrance to the School Intellectual.”

The “Symbolical Alphabet” was not perfect, however, as the translator Charles Hoole, himself a highly regarded schoolmaster, pointed out.  Animals did not speak a universal language, for one thing.  Ducks may say “kha kha” in Latin (or German, which was the second language in the original edition), but in English they have said “quack, quack” at least since 1570, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Dogs do growl “Rrrrr,” but  they make other sounds as well.  How many seventeenth-century English children had seen as much as a picture of a hoopoe, a showy bird that ranges across Africa and Asia?  Another problem is the sloppy typesetting–the spacing and placement of the captions for the letters I through M, for example, are noticeably out of alignment.

Comenius’s “Symbolic Alphabet” was retooled by another schoolmaster in the 1690s.   Like any teacher trying to use a colleague’s lesson plan, Joseph Aickin felt it necessary to make modifications.  He simplified the concept by adapting it for instruction in one, not two languages in his English Grammar ( London: Printed for the author by J. Lawrence, 1693). He also tinkered with the presentation.  He rewrote the bilingual picture caption as a question and set it to the left of the picture, which he had moved to the center of the page. To the right of it was the letter representing the animal’s cry and a phonetic transcription in two separate columns.  He also improved  some of the examples:  Comenius had the hare cry “va” for the letter W, while Aickin substituted, “What’s French for yea? wWw Wee” (admittedly the link between that and the cut of a man playing bowls is confusing).  He replaced the letter I symbolized by the mouse chirping “I I I” in Comenius with “What do we see with? i I i  Eye” accompanied by a cut of a beam of light shooting out from an wide open eyeball.

Reproduced from the Thomason copy on Early English Books On Line.

Some people in the mid-eighteenth century may have recalled the “Symbolic Alphabet” with nostalgia.   It was revived with little modifications and illustrated with rather elegant engravings printed in red and black, as “The Sound of the Letters represented by sensible Objects”  in The Pretty Play-thing for Children of all Denominations (Alexandria [i.e. London]: Printed for the Booksellers of Egypt and Palmyra [i.e. John Newbery], ca. 1759).   Here are the pages for the letters A-D and W-Z:

I recognized Comenius’ “Symbolical Alphabet” in its new dress a few weeks ago after dipping into the Orbis Sensualism Pictus for a different reason.   What is most striking is the way the systematic sequence of links in Comenius between thing with picture, the picture with the thing’s sound, the thing’s sound with the letter of the alphabet, and the letter with its pronunciation has been broken and replaced with something much simpler in the Newbery adapatation.  Comenius’s brilliant strategy was perhaps too complicated to prove as “distinct and articulate as the fingers on the hand:”  Newbery’s clever repackaging showed the way for future pictorial alphabets for very young learners.

Is Shakespeare Kid Stuff? “Toy Book” Adaptations?

Prospero’s storm from The Tempest – detail from cover of Shakespearean Tales in Verse (Cotsen 72670)

Shakespeare isn’t exactly “kid stuff,” is it?  Ask any high-schooler struggling with blank verse, now-obscure Elizabethan slang, or plots so complex that some student guides actually diagram the plot (and sub-plots) in an effort to make clear who’s who and who does what to whom, and when and where it happens..

Tragedies like Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet present a veritable catalog of horrors and villains too. And what are we to make of “comedies” like The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew, which often seem distinctly unfunny and potentially offensive to audiences in our time?  Literature for children?

Nothing will come of nothing… Hand-colored frontispiece of Charles Lamb’s version of King Lear (embellished with three copper plates), issued by the Juvenile Library, 1808 (Cotsen 151360)

Yet, with the exception of the gristly Titus, all the plays mentioned above were included in Lamb’s classic Tales from Shakespeare, prose adaptions of the plays by Charles and Mary Lamb, intended to provide “easy reading for very young children,” as the Lambs themselves phrased it in their “Preface.”  The Lambs were not the first to adapt Shakespeare for children or those without refined reading skills, nor will they be the last.  Some adapters over the years have taken a more sensationalist tack, turning the plays into lurid Penny Dreadfuls for adults, sometimes featuring garishly-colored covers or illustrations, like the Shakespearean Novelette Series, discussed recently by our colleagues at the Folger Shakespeare Library in a recent blog posting.

The Merchant of Venice – upper wrapper of the “Tales from Shakespeare” toy book  published by Warne & Co. (ca. 1868-88; found on Ebay by the writer)

Reading about these over-the-top, pulp-fiction adaptations, and seeing photos of their publisher’s paper wrappers decorated with chromolithographed illustrations, I couldn’t help but think of some of Cotsen Library’s “toy books” — cheap children’s reading that also feature greatly simplified texts, illustrated paper wrappers, and chromolithograph or  chromoxylograph (color-printed wood blocks) illustrations — issued in the thousands by publishers like Routledge, Warne, and McLoughlin Brothers from the 1860s through the 1920s.  Although “cheap,” these publications usually cost a shilling in Britain, (twelve pence in pre-decimal currency) and anywhere from a dime to a quarter in the USA, a fair amount more than the penny novelettes.  Accordingly, the production values of the toy book versions  seem a little higher than those of the penny novelettes.

Upper cover of Shakespearian Tales in Verse for Children by McLoughlin Bros., (© 1882) (Cotsen 72670)

Routledge, Warne, and McLoughlin Bros. also offered more deluxe versions of these toy book publications by combining several individual titles together and issuing them in a cloth-backed books, usually with a color-printed paper onlay on the upper cover.  (The publishers termed these “picture books,” to distinguish them from the paper-wrappered toy books of individual titles.)  McLoughlin’s Shakespearian (sic) Tales in Verse for Children (©1882) is a prime example, presenting sixteen-page versions of four plays — The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and A Winter’s Tale — in four-line stanzas (one rhyming and three with alternately-rhyming lines).  This seems like a curious selection of plays, in terms of both  subject matter, potential interest, or general suitability for children, and also as a group. What’s the common denominator?  It’s possible that these four plays were just the ones that the publisher had on hand at the time this collective title was issued — perhaps they were part of a projected series of all Shakespeare plays, which never seems to have been taken further?

McLoughlin’s editorial contribution to Shakseperian Tales: a new title page, adding an attribution to “Mrs Valentine.”

McLoughlin Bros. stamped an 1882 copyright notice on the foot of the cover of this edition of Shakespearian Tales, an act of real chutzpah.  While McLoughlin could legally protect their work from other American publishers, they were copyrighting what was essentially a book they’d pirated from Warne, routine practice by McLoughlin with a sizeable portion of their output, pirated from English publishers, in particular Warne and Routledge.  Except for the new cover design, binding, and a new title page, the material in Shakespearian Tales is taken right out of Warne’s “Tales from Shakespeare” toy book editions.)

The four plays in Shakespearian Tales are all presented in a similar design format; sixteen illustrated pages with verse and color-tinted illustrations nicely integrated into the page design. Each play begins with a large caption title, part of a large illustration occupying about 3/4 of the page and running down the left side of the page for its whole height.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright? 
The first page of  Taming of the Shrew, but why the fierce tiger and Cupid?

The Taming of the Shrew, the first play in the Shakespearian Tales collection, has a particularly nicely-done opening page, I think — notice how the first word “once” has been rendered as part of the illustration.  But take another look at the illustration… It’s a little enigmatic, isn’t it?. What does the fierce tiger and Cupid have to do with the Shrew story of two adversaries-turned-lovers?  The tiger seems to represent Kate — aka “the shrew” — and love (or perhaps Petruchio?) is depicted as Cupid, approaching the “fierce” tiger holding up his empty bow and an arrow in separate hands, as if in a gesture of peace.  (Cupid seems to have no intention of shooting his arrow at the tiger, in contrast to his usual tactic with lovers!)  Somehow this peaceful approach works for, as we see in the last vignette of this adaption, cupid — having “tamed a shrew” — is shown riding off on a beautiful, contented-looking cat.  A metamorphosis, as well as a happy-ending love story!  Visually, this suggests the triumph of gentleness or love over ferocity or willfulness, a fierce spirit calmed — a reconciliation, of sorts — not a harsh “taming” of a woman by a man, as Shakespeare’s plot presents (an aspect that has troubled audiences and probably contributed to a relative lack of productions of this play, compared with most others.  Yet it’s also worth pointing out that the Lambs were quite comfortable with Shrew as an object lesson in a how a “shrewish lady” with “fiery temper” became “an obedient and duteous wife,” a starchier lesson than “love conquers all” which actually appears in background of two scenes in the toy book version.)

Cupid tames the snarling tiger and turns her into a tame cat to ride upon: the “Taming of the shrew… or, “Love conquers all”?   (Virgil filtered through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’ Prioress…)

The verse adaption of the text in this version presents a rendition of the story that’s more closely related to the original play, but one adapted for children, and as such, without the harsh battling between Kate and Petruchio.  The triumph of love is the real force here. There is an illustration of a musician and his broken lute –smashed over his head by a raging Kate — but it’s after-the-fact, and most of the other illustrations in this edition are curiously inexpressive, with an emphasis on “old” costumes and decor.  Kate generally looks quite demure.

With that, her cheeks all fiery red,/
She beat the lute about my head, /
Through the broken wood it passed, /
And I was in a pillory fast!

No supper Kath’rine had that night, /
But hungry work with morning’s light, /
And putting haughtiness aside /
Went forth to get her wants supplied.

The other three Shakespeare adaptations in the picture book volume follow a similar basic pattern: greatly simplified versions of the stories with an emphasis on reconciliation and happy endings: The Winter’s Tale ends with marriage and celebration — an abandoned child is revealed as a royal princess; The Tempest with the newly-free Ariel “rejoicing” and singling as he soars off with Miranda and Ferdinand betrothed lovers sailing back to Milan; and The Merchant of Venice with Antonio (the merchant from whom Shylock sought to extract a pound of flesh), “repaid for all the love he bore his friend [with better fortune from henceforth.”  The good prosper, and seem ready to live “happily ever after,” while bad repent and are forgiven.

The Merchant begins with a composite scene of Venetian tourist delights: the Realto Bridge, the Doge’s Palace, and a canal with some gondolas, as well as a couple of merchant’s ship — all things that a child of this time might associate with Venice, a fabled Grand Tour site in the late nineteenth century.

Opening illustrated page of The Merchant featuring a Venetian backdrop

Shylock, one of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s characters, features prominently in the illustrations for this version, as we might expect.  He is shown as being virtually transformed by his “wolfish hate” of Antonio and the extremity of his demands for vengeance from a dignified old man into a savage fury, knife-in-hand, in several scenes.

Shylock proposing the bond

Shylock ready to extract his bond

After Portia’s “quality of mercy” judgement on Shylock takes away all his wealth and money and denies his demand for extraction of the pound of flesh, he is described in the toy book version as being left a “poor, broken-hearted man… with heavy heart” — a monument to understatement, perhaps intended to soften the ending for children.

The version of The Tempest in Shakespearian Tales uses the same opening-page design format we’ve seen in the other two plays.  But as you can see, it invents a an opening scene not found in Shakespeare’s play at all (which begins with Prospero’s conjured storm  — the tempest, for which the play is names) or in the Lamb’s retelling (which begins with a fairy-tale like opening: “There was a certain island in the sea, the only inhabitants of which were an old man, whose name was Prospero, and his daughter Miranda…”).  Instead, young readers were provided with a story beginning with Prospero and Miranda finding themselves in a small boat “on the foaming waters wild” long before the actual events in the play take place, with an accompanying two-color illustration.
(Contrast this visual with the “more accurate” one of Prosperso and Ariel conjuring the storm in which the ship founders, shown at the top of this posting, and taken from a cover detail.)

The opening page of The Tempest

Perhaps the authors of both adaptations of The Tempest thought the narrated story-within-a-story history that Prospero provides to Miranda after the storm he himself conjures up was too complex for young readers?  And of course, any narrative version will lack the tremendous dramatic impact of The Tempest’s opening storm on-stage.

Sweet music floated on the air…

The story of a magician and his daughter marooned on a magical island would always hold a a certain interest for your readers. But this toy book version foregrounds all the magical creatures on Prospero’s island, partly due to the toy book format’s inherent stress on illustration, but mostly due to inspiration of the illustrator (possibly J.H. Howard), who concocts several scenes calling to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream world of fairies and sprites. Just take a look at them!  Illustrated books about fairies, sprites, and elves have long been an audience-pleasing staple of children’s literature and the ones here must have strongly appealed.

For he was skilled in magic arts …

… and could call spirits from the deep.

After the visual enchantments of The Tempest, the version of The Winter’s Tale that closes out Shapespearian Tales seems like a somewhat unexciting variation of the overall design theme, as well as a blander text, at least to me.  But take a look and decide for yourself:

The opening page of The Winter’s Tale

“The sea ran high, the winter wind / Wailed o’er a desert, rocky shore…”?  Shades of a “It was a dark and stormy night…”  But then again, Mary Lamb’s version in Tales from Shakespeare seems a little uninspired to me too, with its opening: “Leontes, king of Sicily and his queen, the beautiful Hermione, once lived in the most perfect harmony together…”  Not the best of her work in that volume, I’d say.

The toy book version does add a novel, if perhaps not entirely successful, visual wrinkle to its conclusion: a depiction of some old men telling winter’s tales around a roaring fireplace, while some children look on quite happily.  Are they the tellers of the tale we’ve just read? The depiction recalls the traditional frontispiece illustration for Mother Goose, which we’ve looked at before here on the Cotsen blog: an old woman tells tales to children while seated in front of a fire.  But again, you be the judge. Like some stories, some illustrations are perhaps best left to be enjoyed for their own sake, rather than critically anatomized by commentators?

Telling winter’s tales that children like on a cold winter night…

But while we can’t tell how these verse adaptions of the plays were received by child-readers, I think it’s safe to say that the whimsical color illustrations in at least several of them must have been “a hit, a palpable hit.”