When We Were Very Young: Timeless Poetry

Today I’d like to talk about two of my favorite books of children’s poetry. The books are When We Were Very Young and And Now We Are Six, by author A. A. Milne, better known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh. Pooh makes some appearances in their pages—so does Christopher Robin, his nanny, King John, and a whole host of other wonderful characters. Milne’s poetry is believable and sweet, the kind of thing that can only be written by somebody who actually knows kids. His rhymes are deliciously clever. The illustrations, by E. H. Shepard, are charming, funny, and distinctly characterize each of the lovely characters. One of my favorites is of a little boy skipping around a table, here with some of the words in the book Now We Are Six.

This picture, in fact, may have inspired my childhood enthusiasm for skipping. Why walk when you can skip?

These two books were given to my sister and I as Christmas presents from a thoughtful aunt, and I treasure it more now than I did at the time. I would gladly buy a copy for kids I know, in hopes that someday they might enjoy it as much as I do. Here are the beginnings of two of my favorite poems:

King John’s Christmas

King John was not a good man –
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air –
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

More than anything in the world, for Christmas King John wants a “big, red, india-rubber ball!” You can read the rest of the poem here; to see the poem with its original pictures, click here.

Another of my favorites, from When We Were Very Young, has a conclusion that feels strangely ideological and profound:

The Dormouse And The Doctor

There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)
And all the day long he’d a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)

A Doctor came hurrying round, and he said:
“Tut-tut, I am sorry to find you in bed.
Just say ‘Ninety-nine’, while I look at your chest…
Don’t you find that chrysanthemums answer the best?”

The full poem, with pictures, can be found here.

Finally, I don’t think this post would be complete without a mention of the later works that made A. A. Milne famous. Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner brought the world of Pooh, Piglet, Christopher Robin, and all their other animal friends to life. Christopher Milne was the author’s son, and the animals were all based on real stuffed animals, now immortalized and preserved for us literary geeks who like this kind of thing. Here they are in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Library Building in New York: Tigger, Kanga, Edward Bear (Winnie the Pooh), Eeyore, and Piglet.

As an adult, Christopher Milne talked about the animals, known by thousands of children through the books, being in an American library:

I am asked “Aren’t you sad that the animals are not in their glass case with you today?” I must answer “Not really” and hope that this doesn’t seem too unkind. I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago. I don’t want a house to be a museum.…Every child has his Pooh, but one would think it odd if every man still kept his Pooh to remind him of his childhood. But my Pooh is different, you say: he is the Pooh. No, this only makes him different to you, not different to me. My toys were and are to me no more than yours were and are are to you. I do not love them more because they are known to children in Australia or Japan. Fame has nothing to do with love. I wouldn’t like a glass case that said: “Here is fame”, and I don’t need a glass case to remind me: “Here was love”.

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3 thoughts on “When We Were Very Young: Timeless Poetry

  1. The quote from Christopher Milne at the end is not only a great ending to your blog post, but it is profound as well. Makes you think. Authors, or sons of authors, really aren’t all that different than the rest of us, it seems. It’s just that people or “children in Australia and Japan” know they exist.

    • Thank you! I loved the quote. It’s so easy to forget that people in books are real people and not just characters. (Which is actually why A. A. Milne stopped writing the pooh books after Christopher Milne was about six, because his son was becoming something of a “celebrity” and Mr. Milne wanted to let him live his own life.)

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