Subversive Nonsense Poetry

Mother Goose Mother Goose

I was highly critical of Stanley Fish last week for attacking those who are “instrumental” about the humanities. My claim that the classics can change your life attributes an instrumental dimension to literature. But when I look at how certain parents have tried to foist preachy moralistic tales on their children, I find myself on Fish’s side. Maybe we need to distinguish between a narrow and a broad instrumentalism. I devote today’s post to instances of the narrow variety.

When my oldest son was very young, I remember receiving, from my fundamentalist in-laws, a book entitled A Christian Mother Goose. Well-beloved poems had been rewritten to deliver messages that, for example, children should love God and obey their parents and share their toys and generally be good.

The book struck me as an unintentional and very bad parody.  I loved the Mother Goose poems when I was young and felt something precious was being violated here. It was as though an adult agenda was trying to invade Justin’s life and deprive him of his sense of play.

These rewritten poems were sweet and syrupy whereas the originals are sometimes dark and violent. The woman in a shoe beats her children soundly and puts them to bed. The King of Hearts beats the Knave of Hearts. A spider frightens Little Miss Muffet. Old Mrs. Hubbard’s cupboard is bare. Yet the poems have great rhythm and rhyme and the stories are wonderfully illogical. Getting whacked by one’s stressed-out mom is easier to take when one thinks of oneself living in a crowded shoe.

I regret now having gotten rid of Christian Mother Goose. But one can get a sense of the poems it contained by dipping into the 18th and 19th centuries and looking at some of the poems written then for children and young people. For example, although Issac Watt wrote some pretty good hymns, the following didactic poem by him sticks in the throat:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last. (1715)

Children were required to memorize such poem so that they would internalize the Puritan work ethic.  You may already know one author’s response to this:

“How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll uses nonsense to subvert a narrow moralism. Alice is constantly being told to recite poetry that is instructive, and, although she is always prepared to oblige, the words just come out wrong, invariably offending someone.   Her earnest sweetness masks the violence in the poems–the crocodile’s grin, the mouse condemned to death, the oysters betrayed and eaten by the walrus and the carpenter, the young man kicked downstairs.   Apparently innocently, Alice breaks with the adult program and twists her words so that they will do more justice to the complex inner lives of children. Sugar and spice indeed! Here’s another example of a moralistic poem and Carroll’s parody of it:

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first
That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And pleasures with youth pass away,
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth could not last;
I thought of the future whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And life must be hastening away;
You are chearful, and love to converse upon death!
Now tell me the reason I pray.

I am chearful, young man, Father William replied,
Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.

Children in Alice’s day were constantly being called upon to perform such poems, demonstrating that they were good.  In the fantasy world of  Wonderland, however, nonsense reigns:

Repeat, ‘You are old, Father William,’” said the Caterpillar.
Alice folded her hands, and began:—

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.’

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —
Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –
Allow me to sell you a couple?’

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life”‘

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –
What made you so awfully clever?’

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father, “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!’

“That is not said right,” said the Caterpillar.
QUITE right, I’m afraid,” said Alice, timidly; “some of the words have got altered.”
“It is wrong from beginning to end,” said the Caterpillar decidedly, and there was silence for some minutes.

So much for sage elders and dutiful youths.  My family had a boxed set of records of the complete Alice in Wonderland, and I listened to the book so many times that I had most of the poems and some of the dialogue memorized at an early age. It was delicious years later to find, in Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, the poems that Carroll is parodying. But even without knowing the original poems, I recognized that Carroll’s versions were tapping into something subversive. I identified with Alice because, like her, I was a good little child who wanted to do the right thing–but who also had sides to myself that no one other than certain storybook authors could articulate.

Literature used in service of narrow ends denies readers this freedom. If books are frigates that take us lands away (to quote Emily Dickinson), then poetry written with a pinched agenda hijacks the journey. Stories reach deep into us and we feel violated when the experience is accompanied by someone shaking his finger. No wonder Fish rails against instrumentalism and wants literature to be appreciated as an end in itself.

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  1. By Moral Verse for Bad Little Children on December 5, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    […] I was a great fan of the tongue-in-cheek “cautionary verses” of English poet Hilaire Belloc.  I have written in the past about how, in the Alice books, Lewis Carroll took off after those […]


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