Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Walking Away

(Self-Portrait at Age 13, silverpoint on
paper, by Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528,
German printmaker and painter)

We now come to the end of this month’s visit to childhood. In today’s poem, the poet recalls a day in the life of his eldest son.

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” ~ Mark Twain


(for Sean)

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day —
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled — since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take — the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show —
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

~ C. Day-Lewis (1904-1972), Irish poet, who also wrote popular mystery novels under the name of Nicholas Blake

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Drawing from the Past

(How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My
by Arshille Gorky, 1904?-1948, Armenian-born
American painter)

One of my most cherished possessions is a page from a cookbook my mother had kept since she was a young woman. It includes a recipe for Rumtopf, or rum pot, printed in the old German fraktur font, with her underlinings of instructions she thought important.

The directions for this traditional German way of preserving fresh fruit are easy to follow. Around June, begin to gather the fruits of summer from local markets or farms, especially strawberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, and plums. Mangoes, grapes, kiwi, pineapple, and cherries are also good for this. Over the months, add the fruit, washed and chopped and peeled, if necessary, to a mixture of white sugar and the best dark rum. Store in a large glass container with a tight top, in a cool corner of the basement. By New Year’s, this ruby-red nectar will be just perfect to serve over pound cake or vanilla ice cream.

(There are only a few rules. Avoid bananas, the hard seeds of fruit, melons for their high water content, and blackberries, gooseberries, and rhubarb for their bitter taste. Check occasionally that the
Rumtopf is kept cool; if fermentation does occur, you have to discard everything and start anew.)


Only Mama and I were at home.
We ate tomato sandwiches
with sweeps of mayonnaise
on indifferent white bread.

Surely it was September,
my older brother at school.
The tomatoes were fragrant
and richly red, perhaps the last before frost.

I was alert to the joy of eating
sandwiches alone with Mama, bare
feet braced on the underpinnings
of the abraded kitchen table.

Once, I’d made a mark in the wood
by pressing too hard as I traced
the outline of a horse.

I was no good at drawing — from life,
or from imagination. My brother
was good at it, and I was alert
to that, too.

~ Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), American poet

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Time, You Old Gypsy Man

(Mother Sewing with Child by Mary Cassatt,
1844-1926, American painter and printmaker)

All parents have similar wistful thoughts.


Time, you old gypsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?
All things I’ll give you
Will you be my guest,
Bells for your jennet
Of silver the best,
Goldsmiths shall beat you
A great golden ring,
Peacocks shall bow to you,
Little boys sing.
Oh, and sweet girls will
Festoon you with may.
Time, you old gypsy,
Why hasten away?

Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning, and in the crush
Under Paul's dome;
Under Paul’s dial
You tighten your rein —
Only a moment,
And off once again;
Off to some city
Now blind in the womb,
Off to another
Ere that’s in the tomb.

Time, you old gypsy man,
Will you not stay?
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?

~ Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962), English poet

Friday, February 25, 2011

Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death

(An illustration from The Wild Things by Maurice Sendak,
born 1928, American artist and writer)

The cautionary tales or verses designed to instruct children in the virtuous and safe life are often filled with dry and dull lessons.

There are exceptions. In Germany, in 1845, Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) published
Der Struwwelpeter, or Slovenly Peter, as Mark Twain called him in his translation. Among the sensible rules Hoffmann set out for children to follow, one verse urged them to watch where they are going and another, to eat the soup their mothers serve them, or else dire consequences would befall them. He also included moral lessons. One verse admonishes three naughty boys who are teasing a dark-skinned youngster; St. Nicholas dunks them in black ink to make them even darker than the boy they had made fun of.

In our time, the American writer and artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000) published his own whimsical and melodramatic warnings directed at both children and adults.

But it fell to an English writer before him, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), to satirize this genre with cautionary verses that were quite over the top.

“Upon being asked by a Reader whether the verses contained in a collection of cautionary verses were true,” Belloc wrote the following introduction:

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 survived to draw
The nicest things you ever saw.

Both Hofmann and Belloc warned against playing with fire — Hoffmann’s Pauline is fascinated with matches, and Belloc’s Matilda is a practiced prevaricator.


Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.

For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London's Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
“Matilda’s House is Burning Down!”

Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda’s Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away.

It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.

That Night a Fire did break out —
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street —
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) — but all in vain!

For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

~ Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), French-born poet, essayist and historian, who became a naturalized British citizen and even served as a Member of Parliament for five years

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Children’s Games

(Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1529?-1569,
Dutch landscape painter; click on the image to see an
enlarged version)

Last October, we looked at ekphrasis, or literary commentary about a work of art. The poem today is one of the ten that William Carlos Williams wrote about Bruegel the Elder’s paintings. You can read more of these poems by clicking on his name in the “labels” below.

(To read poems by other poets on this theme of
ekphrasis, click on the month of October in the archives in the column to the right.)



This is a schoolyard
with children

of all ages near a village
on a small stream
meandering by

where some boys
are swimming

or climbing a tree in leaf
is motion

elder women are looking
after the small

a play wedding a
nearby one leans

an empty hogshead


Little girls
whirling their skirts about
until they stand out flat

tops pinwheels
to run in the wind with
or a toy in 3 tiers to spin

with a piece
of twine to make it go
blindman's-buff follow the

leader stilts
high and low tipcat jacks
bowls hanging by the knees

standing on your head
run the gauntlet
a dozen on their backs

feet together kicking
through which a boy must pass
roll the hoop or a

made of bricks
some mason has abandoned


The desperate toys
of children

imagination equilibrium
and rocks
which are to be

and games to drag

the other down
to make use of

a swinging
with which

at random
to bash in the
heads about

Brueghel saw it all
and with his grim

humor faithfully

~ William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and practicing physician

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Table and the Chair

(The Dancing Lesson, Dorothea
and Francesca
, 1898, by Cecelia
Beaux, 1855-1942, American
portrait painter, often compared
to John Singer Sargent and Mary

“Don’t tell me of a man’s being able to talk sense. Everyone can talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?”~ William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), a prime minister of England


Said the Table to the Chair,
“You can hardly be aware,
How I suffer from the heat,
And from chilblains on my feet!
If we took a little walk,
We might have a little talk!
Pray let us take the air!”
Said the Table to the Chair.

Said the Chair to the Table,
“Now you know we are not able!
How foolishly you talk,
When you know we cannot walk!”
Said the Table with a sigh,
“It can do no harm to try,
I've as many legs as you,
Why can't we walk on two?”

So they both went slowly down,
And walked about the town
With a cheerful bumpy sound,
As they toddled round and round.
And everybody cried,
As they hastened to their side,
“See! the Table and the Chair
Have come out to take the air!”

But in going down an alley,
To a castle in a valley,
They completely lost their way,
And wandered all the day,
Till, to see them safely back,
They paid a Ducky-quack,
And a Beetle, and a Mouse,
Who took them to their house.

Then they whispered to each other,
“O delightful little brother!
What a lovely walk we've taken!
Let us dine on Beans and Bacon!”
So the Ducky and the leetle
Browny-Mousy and the Beetle
Dined and danced upon their heads
Till they toddled to their beds.

~ Edward Lear (1812-1888), English artist, poet, and writer of limericks and other nonsense

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

One Dog

(The penultimate image of the 1959 movie The 400
by François Truffaut, 1932-1984, French film

Growing up is hard to do.

In his acclaimed first film
The 400 Blows or Les quatre cents coups, Truffaut tells the tale of one boy’s difficult life. The director does not set out “to depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but . . . to show it as the painful experience that it is.”

Every child needs the security of a loving family for the necessary guidance to a virtuous and mature life. Thirteen-year-old Antoine Doinel is not so lucky. Unhappy and feeling abandoned, he tries to find his own way, to write his own rules for coping with indifferent parents and misguided authorities. The above image from the film shows him at the final steps of his escape to freedom, reaching the edge of the sea. The ending is also a beginning.


I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog and lone,
I’m a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own!
I’m a bad dog, a mad dog, teasing silly sheep;
I love to sit and bay the moon and keep fat souls from sleep.

I’ll never be a lap dog, licking dirty feet,
A sleek dog, a meek dog, cringing for my meat.
Not for me the fireside, the well-filled plate,
But shut door and sharp stone and cuff and kick and hate.

Not for me the other dogs, running by my side,
Some have run a short while, but none of them would bide.
O mine is still the lone trail, the hard trail, the best,
Wide wind and wild stars and hunger of the quest.

~ Irene McLeod (1891-1968), English poet

Monday, February 21, 2011

Robinson Crusoe

(Foot Print, illustration by N. C. Wyeth,
1882-1945, American artist and illustrator)

“It happen'd one Day about Noon going towards my Boat, I was exceedingly surpriz'd with the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition.” ~ from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660?-1731), English writer, pamphleteer, and novelist

Although commonly referred to simply as
Robinson Crusoe, the book’s complete original title as it appears on the title page of the first edition is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un‐inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself.

This novel is one example of many works originally intended for adult readers, like The Last of the Mohicans and Gulliver’s Travels, which have also, over the years, become popular as great children’s literature.

The poem today is directed at the adult reader.


Wrecked castaway
On lonely strand
Works hard all day
To tame the land,
Takes time to pray;
Makes clothes by hand.

For eighteen years
His skill he plies,
Then lo! A footprint
He espies —
“Thank God it’s Friday!”
Crusoe cries.

Take heart from his
Example, chums:
Work hard, produce;
Complete your sums;
Friday comes.

~ Michael Sagoff, American poet (1910-1998), from Shrink-Lit: Seventy of the world’s towering classics cut down to size

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Listeners

(The Reading Girl by Meyer von Bremen,
1813-1886, German painter)

“I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.” ~ C. S. Lewis, English writer of essays, poems, and novels, including The Chronicles of Narnia


“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head: —
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

~ Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), English writer, most famous for his ghost stories and children’s poetry

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mary’s Girlhood

(Education of Mary by Anne, Her Mother,
from a 14th-century altar front with scenes
of the life of Mary)

(Saint Anne Teaches the Child Mary to
, from the breviary of John the
Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, 1371-1419,
kept in the British Library; note the stylus
Mary is using to follow the words in the text)

(Education of the Girl Mary by Georges de la Tour, 1593-1652,
French painter)

“In every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication. The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books, and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a great or lesser degree, in every reading.” ~ Alberto Manguel, from his book A History of Reading

Beginning in medieval times, images of Anne’s teaching her daughter Mary, the future mother of Christ, to read was a popular theme of stained glass windows and altar pieces in churches, of paintings, and of illuminations on the pages of books of hours and breviaries.


Gone is a great while, and she
Dwelt young in Nazareth of Galilee.
Unto God’s will she brought devout respect
Profound simplicity of intellect.
And supreme patience. From her mother’s knee
Faithful and hopeful; wise in charity;
Strong in grave peace; in pity circumspect.

~ Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), English poet, painter, and illustrator

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Boy’s Head

(Photo by Vivian Maier, 1926-2009, American “street
photographer,” from a collection of tens of thousands
of photographs she took on the streets of mid-century
Chicago; her work was discovered when a real estate
agent found the negatives in 2007 at an auction of boxes
abandoned in storage lockers)

“Recall that the imagination is a natural faculty in man. Some people make the mistake of fostering it, but it is often so powerful on its own that it will assert itself if we simply allow people to live what used to pass for an ordinary life. If you are breathing hard from the airborne soot of a city, all it may take for your lungs to clear again is to spend a week in the country. And all it might take for the imagination to breathe again is some time in solitude and silence.” ~ Anthony Esolen, from his book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child


In it there is a space-ship
and a project
for doing away with piano lessons.

And there is
Noah’s ark,
which shall be first.

And there is
an entirely new bird,
an entirely new hare,
an entirely new bumble-bee.

There is a river
that flows upwards.

There is a multiplication table.

There is anti-matter.

And it just cannot be trimmed.

I believe
that only what cannot be trimmed
is a head.

There is much promise
in the circumstance
that so many people have heads.

~ Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), Czech poet

Thursday, February 17, 2011


(The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse, 1869-1954,
French printmaker, painter, and sculptor)

Both the art and the poem today recreate a memory of a young boy at a piano — but with a different tempo and perspective.

Matisse’s painting is of his son Pierre’s practicing the piano to the beat of a metronome. It records the fleeting moment as the triangle of a shadow flashes across his face. This image anticipates a memory for the boy in the future.

Lawrence’s poem is of a scene from his boyhood of sitting under the piano listening to his mother’s playing and singing. This memory is made up of more than a brief moment; it blends together repeated Sunday evenings by the piano.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

~ D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), English novelist, poet, and literary critic

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Land of Counterpane

Robert Louis Stevenson, the creator of such characters as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and Long John Silver, wrote one of the most charming collections of poetry for children, A Child’s Garden of Verse. The book is dedicated to his nurse or nanny, Alice “Cunny” Cunningham:

For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake:
For your most comfortable hand
That led me through the uneven land:
For all the story-books you read,
For all the pains you comforted,
For all you pitied, all you bore,
In sad and happy days of yore: —

(The Land of Counterpane by Jessie
Willcox Smith, 1863-1935, American

Today’s poem recalls the time Stevenson spent in bed as a sickly child.


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Scottish poet, novelist, and travel writer

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

(The Little Parisian by Willy Ronis, 1910-2009,
French photographer)

As a youth, Willy Ronis studied music and composition. He wanted to become a violinist. Those plans had to change when his father became ill and he had to take charge of his father’s photographic studio. But his love of classical music stayed with him and infused his photography with “the taste I have for composition, particularly counterpoint. Many of my photographs are taken from above, either looking down or up, three planes in one image, like three different melodies in a fugue which work together to give the piece structure and harmony.”


They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just slightly off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes’ pure blue.
It makes you see at last the value of
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

~ John Updike (1932-2009), American poet, novelist, and critic

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day

(Boy and Girl on a Hillside by Winslow Homer, 1836-1910,
American artist)

This children’s ditty is a variation on the traditional sentiments of the day.


Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.

Roses are red,
Cabbages are green,
If my face is funny,
Yours is a scream.

~ Anonymous

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Prayer for a New Mother

(Holy Family — Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,
from an illuminated manuscript of a Book
of Hours, or Devotions, created by an
anonymous Dutch artist, around 1440, for
Catherine of Cleves)

Sometimes an artist will surprise you. For example, Salvador Dali, the Spanish painter who seemed to relish breaking down cultural signposts into surreal pieces, also painted reverential images from the Bible, including the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

Dorothy Parker — yes, that New Yorker who “perfected a light, humorous, cynical verse,” in the words of one critic — wrote several poems about Mary, the Mother of Christ, that would delight the reader with her observations about love and motherhood.


The things she knew, let her forget again —
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

~ Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), American writer of poetry and short stories

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The End

(Portrait of a Small Child by Wilhelm List, 1864-1918,
German painter)

“What I want to explain in the Introduction is this. We have been nearly three years writing this book. We began it when we were very young . . . and now we are six. So, of course, bits of it seem rather babyish to us, almost as if they had slipped out of some other book by mistake. On page whatever-it-is there is a thing which is simply three-ish, and when we read it to ourselves just now we said, ‘Well, well, well,’ and turned over rather quickly. So we want you to know that the name of the book doesn’t mean that this is us being six all the time, but that it is about as far as we’ve got at present, and we half think of stopping there.” ~ A. A. Milne, from the introduction to his book When We Are Six


When I was One,
I had just begun.

When I was Two,
I was nearly new.

When I was Three,
I was hardly Me.

When I was Four,
I was not much more.

When I was Five,
I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

~ A. A. Milne (1882-1956), English poet and writer and father of Christopher Robin

Friday, February 11, 2011

For a Sleepless Child

(Child with a Dove by Marc Chagall, 1887-1985,
Russian-French artist)

Many of Chagall’s paintings have a gentle, dream-like quality about them, like happy memories of childhood.


If your room is ever too dark,
small one, look out through your window
up at the moon, that little bulb
left on for you in the sky’s black wall.
It will still be there come morning,
burning in a bright room of blue.

And if your room, restless one,
is much too still, listen to the clatter
of the freight, rattling past trestles
on the cool night breeze. Then follow
the moon to the side of the tracks,
where the train is a long, slow dream

you can jump on. An open car
is waiting for you — one step up —
you’re on! Now watch the dark towns, the lights
deep in the porches, and lie down
in the soft straw, and sleep till morning,
when the train chugs into station,

noisy with birds and wires overhead.

~ Peter Schmitt, American poet

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nurse’s Song

(Prairie Children Building a Snow Fort by William
Kurelek, 1927-1977, Canadian artist and writer)

William Blake wrote two poems with identical titles and opening lines but with very opposite moods.

In the poem below, from
Songs of Innocence, the nurse or nanny is happy and cheerful and kind towards the children. In Blake’s other version, from Songs of Experience, she is not.

The differences between the two volumes reflect, Blake suggests, how the struggle between good and evil in life can transform innocence to experience.


When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

“Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.”

“No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover'd with sheep.”

“Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.”
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed
And all the hills echoed.

~ William Blake, 1757-1827, English poet, painter, engraver, and mystic visionary

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Answer to a Child’s Question

(Child with an Orange by Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890,
Dutch Post-Impressionist painter)

A wonderful question. And a sensible answer.


Do you ask what the birds say? The Sparrow, the Dove,
The Linnet, and Thrush say, “I love and I love!”
In the winter they’re silent — the wind is so strong;
What it says I don’t know, but it sings a loud song.
But green leaves, and blossoms, and sunny warm weather,
And singing, and loving — all come back together.
Then the Lark is so brimful of gladness and love,
The green fields below him, the blue sky above,
That he sings, and he sings, and for ever sings he —
“I love my Love, and my Love loves me.”

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), English Romantic poet

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mother’s Song

(Young Japanese Girl by Hiroshi Yoshida,
1876-1950, Japanese painter and woodblock


If snow falls on the far field
where travelers
spend the night,
I ask you, cranes,
to warm my child in your wings.

~ Anonymous, Japanese

Monday, February 7, 2011

Evening Benediction

(The Cradle by Berthe Morisot, 1841-1895,
French Impressionist painter)

The story about brother and sister Hansel and Gretel is one of the many German folk tales collected by the linguists Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Years later, this Brothers Grimm fairy tale was transformed into an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. It was first performed in 1893 under the baton of Richard Strauss, and remains popular, especially during the Christmas holiday.

The words below are sung by the two children when they become lost and scared in a dark forest.


When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep:
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding,
Two are on my right hand,
Two are on my left hand,
Two who warmly cover,
Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.

~ Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), German composer

Sunday, February 6, 2011


(Mother Holding Baby by Keith Haring, 1958-1990,
American artist, famous for his street art)

“A baby, however, sells itself and needs no advertising copy; few people can resist it. There is something about babyness that brings out the softness in people and makes them want to hug and protect this small thing that moves and dribbles and produces what we poetically call poopoo. Even that becomes precious, for the arrival of a baby coincides with the departure of our minds. My wife and I often summoned the grandparents of our first baby and proudly cried, ‘Look! Poopoo!’ A statement like this is the greatest single disproof of evolution I know.” ~ Bill Cosby, from his book Fatherhood


Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark, as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.

Vague as fog and looked for like mail.
Farther off than Australia.
Bent-backed Atlas, our traveled prawn.
Snug as a bud and at home
Like a sprat in a pickle jug.
A creel of eels, all ripples.
Jumpy as a Mexican bean.
Right, like a well-done sum.
A clean slate, with your own face on.

~ Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), American poet, and writer of novels and short stories

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lullaby of the Iroquois

(Hoopa Indian Mother and Baby by Edward
Curtis, 1868-1952, American photographer)

Pauline Johnson (1861-1914) was a popular Canadian poet, writer, and entertainer. Her father was Mohawk-Canadian and her mother English. Pauline took on her great-grandfather’s name Tekahionwake, or “double life,” as she toured the country to perform her works on stage, wearing traditional Mohawk dress. She is best-known now for one of her poems, “The Song My Paddle Sings,” and a collection of short stories based on west-coast Squamish legends.


Little brown baby-bird, lapped in your nest,
Wrapped in your nest,
Strapped in your nest,
Your straight little cradle-board rocks you to rest;
Its hands are your nest;
Its bands are your nest;
It swings from the down-bending branch of the oak;
You watch the camp flame, and the curling gray smoke;
But, oh, for your pretty black eyes sleep is best, —
Little brown baby of mine, go to rest.

Little brown baby-bird swinging to sleep,
Winging to sleep,
Singing to sleep,
Your wonder-black eyes that so wide open keep,
Shielding their sleep,
Unyielding to sleep,
The heron is homing, the plover is still,
The night-owl calls from his haunt on the hill,
Afar the fox barks, afar the stars peep, —
Little brown baby of mine, go to sleep.

~ Pauline Johnson

Friday, February 4, 2011

Minnie and Winnie

(The Cholmondeley Ladies, dated to 1600-1610, by an
unknown English painter)

The painting is of two young women sitting on a bed and holding, we may assume, their babies wrapped in red christening robes. The painting is named after Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), to whose collection this portrait originally belonged. The women may be his daughters or nieces, or sisters who married into the Cholmondeley family.


Minnie and Winnie
Slept in a shell.
Sleep, little ladies!
And they slept well.

Pink was the shell within,
Silver without;
Sounds of the great sea
Wandered about.

Sleep, little ladies,
Wake not soon!
Echo on echo
Dies to the moon.

Two bright stars
Peeped into the shell.
“What are they dreaming of?
Who can tell?”

Started a green linnet
Out of the croft;
Wake, little ladies,
The sun is aloft!

~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), English poet

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Crying, My Little One

(Mother and Child by Diego Rivera, 1886-1957,
Mexican painter and muralist)

“The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching. Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfill this law. The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love — a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes — must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication”. ~ C. S. Lewis, from his book The Four Loves


Crying, my little one, footsore and weary?
Fall asleep, pretty one, warm on my shoulder:
I must tramp on through the winter night dreary,
While the snow falls on me colder and colder.

You are my one, and I have not another;
Sleep soft, my darling, my trouble and treasure;
Sleep warm and soft in the arms of your mother,
Dreaming of pretty things, dreaming of pleasure.

~ Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), English poet

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


(Mother and Baby by Ruth Orkin, 1921-1985,
American photographer)

Life is often compared to a journey.

The Roman poet Lucretius (99?-55? B.C.) writes of the new-born babe as “a sailor cast up by the sea, / Lying naked on the shore, unable to speak, / Helpless, when it comes to the light of day.”

And René Graziani’s wonderful collection of poems on birth and birthdays is entitled
The Naked Astronaut, “that nine-month traveler into time, attached by the umbilicus to its mother and her life-support system.”


I am the ship in which you sail,
little dancing bones,
your passage between the dream
and the waking dream,
your sieve, your pea-green boat.
I’ll pay whatever toll your ferry needs.
And you, whose history’s already charted
in a rope of cells, be tender to
those other unnamed vessels
who will surprise you one day,
tug-tugging, irresistible,
and float you out beyond your depth,
where you’ll look down, puzzled, amazed.

~ Maura Dooley, born 1957, English poet

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Dream Keeper

(The Problem We All Live With, 1963, by Norman Rockwell,
1894-1978, American artist and illustrator)

This month we will drop in on childhood.

It was 8:40 in the morning of November 14, 1960, when little Ruby Bridges tried to go to class at the William Franz School in New Orleans. She had to walk through a crowd of angry housewives and teenagers who came every morning to protest the integration of the school.

In his book
Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote down what he saw that morning as he was driving through the city.

“The show opened on time. Sound the sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

“The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd, but from the side, the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first step, the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.”


Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers.
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

~ Langston Hughes (1902-1967), American novelist, playwright, and poet, active in the Harlem Renaissance