This week at Wuthering Expectations: educational literature. Or literature about education. Whatever. I don’t care.
First up, the former, Christina Rossetti’s Sing-song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). I read this copy, housed at Indiana University. I wanted an edition with the original illustrations by pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.
Sing-song is not a great book, as a collection of Rossetti poetry or as something of interest to the youngsters of today, but it still has some interest to me. Sometimes the Rossetti quality seeps through the poems.
Like here, p. 10:
I have no trouble hearing that this is the author of “In the bleak midwinter.” Aside from the music of the poem, the specificity of the basket and the plant is appealing. The “tombstone of snow” is almost too symbolically meaningful.
The snowberry bush, and the thrush, too, are part of the educational content of Sing-song. Poems educate the littl’uns about flowers and birds, colors, sums, months, currency, time, and kindness to animals – again and again, kindness to animals.
I know that the point of the illustration is that the little boy – note his grisly snare in the background – should leave the mole alone as well as the other critters, but given the mole’s central placement, and given that he is not mentioned in the poem, it is almost as if the poet is urging the mole to leave the worms and bugs alone, even taunting him by calling the beetle “fat.” At least she omitted “juicy.” Poor hungry mole.
Another sad example:
Hear what the mournful linnets say:
“We built our nest compact and warm,
But cruel boys came round our way
And took our summerhouse by storm.
“They crushed the eggs so neatly laid;
So now we sit with drooping wing,
And watch the ruin they have made,
Too late to build, too sad to sing.” (14)
Poems like this one complement those about dead or dying children, of which there are at least eight. The poems also have some value for mothers:
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. (19)
Meanwhile the baby sleeps and dreams “of pretty things… of pleasure.”
Rossetti also includes riddles and nonsense. My favorite example of the latter, when a bit of nightmarish Carrollian surrealism intrudes:
The riddles can have their own beauty. This example has obvious rhymes and sentiments, but is pleasingly sonorous:
What are heavy? sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? to-day and tomorrow:
What are frail? spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? the ocean and truth. (34)
I am perhaps making the book sound better than it really is. Most of the poems are trivial, merely cute, no different than in a hundred other similar books. The Poetry Foundation singles out this one for some reason:
Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake,
Pop it in the pan;
Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake, –
Catch it if you can.
Not that I am against pancakes – what a terrible thing to even suggest – but I do not think it required the genius of Christina Rossetti to come up with that poem.
Still, I went looking for Rossetti and found her.