Ah – how innocent we all were…
When We Were Very Young
Robert Louis Stevenson,
faced with Mrs Sale Barker’s limp verses for Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book, fancied that he could do somewhat better and in a year or so round about 1882 unreeled the poems that made up his Child’s Garden of Verses. That done, he returned to prose in his writing for children.
A A Milne too,
having perhaps observed the fairies at the bottom of Rose Fyleman’s garden, or the Littlest One of Mrs St John Webb ‘sitting on the door-step an’ eating bread an’ jam’, may have reckoned that this was a genre upon which he could improve. So in the years between 1924 and 1927 he turned out seventy-seven of the seventy-nine lyrics that came to be gathered into When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Then the Muse left him – or rather he left her:
‘Now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.’
seems to have come accidentally in 1922 after he had glimpsed his small son kneeling at prayer before clambering into bed. He set down the verses that would become ‘Vespers’ and gave them to his wife as a present (and she sold them to Vanity Fair for $50 – but wisely retained the copyright, which would keep her in silken underwear for many a long year. Later the verses also formed the substance of the miniature book that was Milne’s contribution to the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.)
was followed, perhaps by design, by an invitation from the fairy-ridden Fyleman to contribute a poem to The Merry-Go-Round, a new children’s magazine to be published by Basil Blackwell of which she had been appointed editor. Milne accepted and his contribution, the ballad of ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor’, was the opening piece in the mag’s first number in November 1923. Its composition though set the creative juices flowing and before it was published Milne had already discovered in himself a great facility for the making of rhymes for, or about, children and a store of such pieces was growing.
A possible home
for these effusions was Punch, where Milne had cut his teeth as assistant-editor in 1909, joining the Table in 1910, and forming a close friendship with the influential E V Lucas – who was also to become chairman of the publishers Methuen. Punch quite liked the subject of children (and indeed, some of Rose Fyleman’s verses had appeared there) so there was nothing surprising in the arrival in the issue for 9 January 1924 of three poems under the rubric ‘When We Were Very Young’. A week later came a single poem: ‘Puppy and I’, now garnished with illustrations by the Punch man, E H Shepard, and so, week by week till April, the partnership continued. After that, down to October, the sequence became more intermittent and several contributions first went to the American children’s magazine St Nicholas where they were illustrated by Reginald Birch, famous for his depictions of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Then on 6 November 1924
When We Were Very Young, the book, was published in London by Methuen, to be followed a fortnight later by Dutton’s edition in New York. The thirty-five poems that had already appeared in magazines were augmented by nine others and the volume was illustrated throughout by Shepard. Its instant success in both countries was phenomenal (by the start of 1925 some 40,000 copies had been sold in Britain and 10,000 in America) but any suggestion that that was unexpected is somewhat undermined by the fact that the publishers had, from the start, arranged for the simultaneous issue of a fancy large-paper limited edition on hand-made paper, signed by the author and the illustrator – the latter having barmily closed for a down payment of £50 for his work rather than a share of the royalties.
The book’s construction,
made up as it was from a sequence of specially composed verses, places it amongst those ‘single-author collections’ (see the discussion in the previous number of BfK) which, like Stevenson’s Child’s Garden or Rosen’s Mind Your Own Business, can claim an integrity which is usually not present in the run-of-the-mill annual or biennial offerings of the writers who regularly turn out children’s verse. The opportunity for the careful organisation of a discrete body of work, closely accompanied by near-perfect illustrations, was mightily beneficial to the success of the book for it allowed the now classic comic ballads like ‘The King’s Breakfast’ and the more convincing poems of child action, like ‘Lines and Squares’ to be interlarded by the soppier stuff that weakens the collection as a whole: those anaemic nature verses and the unfortunate intrusions of Brownie, Twinkletoes and the Lake King’s Daughter.
not only of the poems but of the book’s formula for presenting them also exemplifies (as we also noted earlier) publishers’ customary uncritical welcome for a band-wagon. Within only a few months, E V Lucas (naughty boy) had put through his own publishing house Playtime & Company; a book for children – verses entirely lacking in Milne’s technical skill, but illustrated by Shepard – and from then on we find the kiddie-rhymsters of the period following suit: Eleanor Farjeon, John Drinkwater, the inevitable Fyleman, Jan Struther, and two names that would later become well-known in other capacities: Ronald Frankau and Caryl Brahms. The otherwise unknown Molly Harrower in her “I Don’t Mix Much With Fairies”of 1928 was the first to call upon the services of Kathleen Hale as an illustrator, but of the more than twenty imitators the only one to show any class was E V Rieu with his Cuckoo Calling of 1933, illustrated by the little-known Violet M Guy. It was another Methuen volume and carried acknowledgments not only to Punch but also to the Blackwell publications Merry-Go-Round and Joy Street, but with such comic ventures as ‘Mr Blob’ and ‘Hall and Knight’ it carried an originality that owed nothing to Milne. (An edited reprint in 1962, as The Flattered Flying Fish, was illustrated by – guess who – E H Shepard.)
that ought to be further explored is that by Milne himself in Now We Are Six. The makingof the book reflected that of its predecessor. Fourteen of its thirty-five poems were first published in periodicals (a varied bunch), another limited edition signed by Milne and Shepard attended the publication of the trade edition, and runaway sales ensued. But the book lived then, as it does now, in the shadow of – or perhaps as a pendant to – its famous forebear. Nothing in it has the swing or the comedy of the best poems in WWWVY (I suppose that ‘Sneezles’ is foremost in public memory) but there are none of the duds. It is a more homogeneous work and one is prompted to wonder what would have been its reception if it had been the first of the two. As it is, it can be accused of showing how Milne’s technical genius was turning mechanical and endorses his wisdom in versifying for the little ones no more.
Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Ann Thwaite’s biography and Tori Haring-Smith’s bibliography of Milne for easing my way through the publishing details of WWWVY and I must add a
regarding the ‘presentation edition’ published by Egmont in 2007 to coincide with the 80th anniversary edition of Winnie-the-Pooh. This turns out to be merely a smaller format and more harshly coloured version of an edition first issued in 1989.
The cover illustration is taken from the 2007 Egmont edition (978 1 4052 2994 4, £9.99 hbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.