Christina Rossetti’s “Nursery Rhymes”

This week we’ve paid tribute to poets of the rude and rumbustious and the sly and snide  but we’ll mark the end of Children’s Book Week with the quiet, deceptively simple verse of Christina Rossetti.  Her Sing-Song is perhaps the greatest tribute any writer has paid to the English nursery rhyme.  Almost every type of traditional children’s verse Iona and Peter Opie catalogued in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes has its counterpart in Sing-Song, but delicately transformed into something entirely original, accompanied by Arthur Hughs’ tender, sharply observed illustrations.

She makes rhymes for mothers to love their little ones:

My baby has a mottled fist;

My baby has a neck in creases;

My baby kisses and is kissed

For he’s the very thing for kisses.

She gives a mother words when cuddles are not in order– for a little while:

Seldom “can’t,”

Seldom “don’t;”

Never “shan’t,”

Never ‘won’t.”

She introduces the rigorous mysteries  of nonsense:

A city plum is not a plum;

A dumb-bell is no bell, though dumb;

A statesman’s rat is not a rat;

A sailor’s cat is not a cat;

A soldier’s frog is not a frog;

A captain’s log is not a log.

She reminds little rough hands to be gentle:

Hurt no living thing,

Ladybird, nor butterfly,

Nor moth with dusty wing,

Nor cricket chirping cheerily,

Nor grasshopper so light of leap,

Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,

Nor harmless worms that creep.

Hear what the poem sounds like read aloud.

She glories in the colors:

What is pink? a rose is pink

By the fountain’s brink.

What is red? a poppy’s red

In its barley bed.

What is blue? the sky is blue

Where the clouds float thro’.

What is white? a swan is white

Sailing in the light.

What is yellow? pears are yellow,

Rich and ripe and mellow.

Wnat is green? the grass is green,

With small flowers between.

What is violet? clouds are violet

In the summer twilight.

What is orange? why an orange,

Just an orange!

And closing with the poem  set to music and sung.

Hilaire Belloc, Meet Edward Gorey

The astonishingly prolific Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) lived to see the humor in being remembered for a book of light verse he published in 1907, Cautionary Tales for Children.  The cautionary tale, with its ghoulish mission to prevent juvenile misbehavior, can, for some children, be the stuff of nightmares.  Overkill is its mad method, as the  transgression is always imagined in a worst case scenario so that the dire punishment hardly ever fits the crime.

Mr. Belloc’s tongue-in-cheek self-defense of the exaggeration for satiric effect isn’t going to convince anyone without a black sense of humor themselves:  ” And is it True?  It is not true. / And if it were it wouldn’t do, / For people such as me and you / Who pretty nearly all day long / Are doing something rather wrong. / Because if things were really so, / You would have perished long ago / And I would not have lived to write / The noble lines that meet your sight, / Nor [Edward G.] survived to draw / The nicest things you ever saw.”    Maybe Calvin Trillin is right in saying parents find Belloc hillarious; children have to grow up and deal with their own offspring before they can titter at his brand of beastliness.

The late Edward Gorey (can it be that he has been gone for 20 years) was the ideal illustrator for Belloc, as can be seen in the illuminating self-portrait and his cover design for the poems., which shows shows the black forefinger of Fate pointing to the children gambolling across the grass, little thinking they are doomed.

In this second post in honor of  Children’s Book Week, Sir Peter Ustinov reads a selection of Belloc’s tales with Gorey’s illustrations scrolling in the background.

And here is the author himself, in a most memorable pose reproduced from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.