POETRY FOR INFANTS OF THE OLD SCHOOL.*
THE publishers of this book have, we think rightly, judged that the quaint literature administered to children thirty years ago would not fail to please the children of the present generation. We only regret that they could not reprint this work exactly in its old form, and give the old picture of " Little Ann and her Mother" (with waists within a couple of inches of the neck and dresses that flap inwards about the ankle) watching the tall footmen with powdered bag wigs getting up behind the carriage in Cavendish Square, after repulsing the miserable beggar-woman who is being " improved " as an occasion for profound gratitude to little Ann by little Aun's mamma. Even if an engraving of the old kind could not have been made,—and we assure Messrs. Virtue that the old quaint pictures are far more engag- ing to children (supposing them to be the genuine product of an old generation and not affected now) than the common-place modern art,—it was at least quite within their power to re- produce these quaint poems as they were originally written "by several young persons " without carefully erasing their characteristic features. We do not think it likely that those "young persons" whose imaginations gave birth to the Original Poems still survive to protest against the corrupt forms in which their lyrical productions are now presented to the public, but we at least can testify to the pain with which some of these "infant minds" once carefully stored with those "young persons'" productions regard the changes now made in these immortal pieces. Who would think of modernizing Giotto's costumes or robbing the martyrs and saints of the circular plates of gold leaf round their heads, or even of expunging all the primness from Eselina and the moralities from Patronage ? Yet something like this has been at times attempted in re-editing this little volume for the children of to-day. While we wish to acknowledge in a serious spirit the pure aims of the publishers in putting the poems on " Little Ann and her Mother," " Jem and the Shoulder of Mutton," "The Two Plum Cakes," and others of an equally ennobling description, within the reach of the childish public of the present day, we cannot but point out the false conceptions involved in any attempt to modernize produc- tions of which it is the chief merit that they excite a certain spirit of amused and playful criticism in the minds even of the youngest children. For example, take the impressive story of Henry and the white hand-post which lie mistook for a ghost ;—let us first note, by the way, that the illustrators of the present edition, with a want of loving attention to the subject which shows that their minds were not nourished in infancy on these poems, have ignored the idea of the piece by representing a particularly • Original Fossils for Infarct Minds. By Several Young Persons. A New Edition. London : Virtue Bret .era 11365. black hand-post by daylight at the corner of a comfortable village street, instead of a white hand-post gleaming ghostly on a soli- tary midnight heath. Then the " young person " who conceived the piece had put into Henry's mind a conviction as much in vogue about hall a century eg 1, as Viet of little Ann's mother that beggary exists in great measure to make comfortable people con- scious of their superior condition and grateful for it,—namely, that misfortunes come only to bad people who deserve them ; and so deep was this conviction in Henry's mind that he was able to entertain it in the dark under very discouraging circumstances :— " Again in thickest darkness plunged, He groped, his way to find ;
And now he thought he spied beyond A form of horrid kind.
"In deadly white it upward rose, Of cloak or mantle bare, And held its naked arm across To catch him by the hair."
This is a dramatic situation requiring a strong faith to meet it, and in our childish days heroic Henry had a strong faith, for then the poem ran on :— "Poor Henry felt his blood run cold
At what before him stood, 'But well,' thought he, no harm, rm sure, 'Can happen to the good.' "
The editor of the present reprint, however, regards this view probably as tending to implant the deadly Pelagian heresy, that human goodness can deserve anything, in the youthful mind. As he has not room, however, for any development of a more orthodox and Augustinian faith, he has, we deeply regret to say, washed out all faith from Henry's mind on this trying occasion, and extinguished, as it seems to us, every spark in the deep gloom of that midnight heath. The " young person " who wrote this poem, if now disembodied, should certainly haunt his modern editor for the following effete version :- "Poor Henry felt his blood run cold
At what before him stood, Yet like a man did he resolve To do the best he could."
The best he could ! For his professed confidence in his own virtue, which if it showed Henry to be a little prig still gave a sufficient and worthy inspiration to his courage, we have here no substitute at all, but a mere naked resolve. The feature which most deeply impressed infant minds with a dis- tinct conception of Henry's personality is gone. Moreover, the value of the poem for children is also gone. We remember frequent discussions of this poem with youthful companions,— on the abstract ethics of the question whether harm could hap- pen to the good,—on the concrete ethics of the question whether Henry was conceited in thinking himself good and saying so- on the degree of courage such a conviction, if justifiable at all, could give a boy on a dark and lonely heath at midnight,—and many other interesting points all arising out of Henry's modest confidence in his own virtue. " Henry and the White Hand- post " was in this way a real education to infant minds, and now all the theology, philosophy, and practical questions arising out of it are swept away at one fell stroke by the modern editor. Even infant minds could not discuss whether or not it was right to do " the best you could." That is indeed too fiat and lifeless even for difficulty.
Then look at the still more criminal emendation in the first of the two great poems on the plum cakes. The " idea " of these poems wae, we need scarcely say, to contrast the right use of a plum cake with the wrong use of it. For this purpose, with true art the "young person" who invented these original poems first drew a very gloomy picture of the greedy little boy, little George (a greedy name, by the way), who made the ideally evil use of his plum cake, but the light of the picture was in the background; —little Jack—Jack is a traditionally generous name—was to ap- pear on the scene immediately after little George's bilious attack, pills and black draughts,—to show us the ideal boy's use of a plum cake. As the little glutton George, rolling feverishly on his sick bed, disappears from the stage, the healthy generous Jack comes forward to take his place. The gloom of the first piece is broken by the glory of its successor. The modern editor in his false delicacy confounds the personalities of the two heroes, a?td destroys half the picturesque gloom of the first picture. For- merly it ran thus :— " '0 ! I've got a plum cake, and a rare feast I'll make,
I'll eat and I'll stuff and I'll cram,
Morning, noon-time, and night it shall be my delight— What a happy young fellow I am !' "Thus said little George, and beginning to gorge,
With zeal to the cake he applied, While fingers and thumbs to the sweetmeats and plums
Were hunting and digging beside."
That is a powerful picture, all the lines vigorously drawn, and the subtle affinity of the name " George " with the idea "gorge" is used with that keen sense of the moral flavour of names which always distinguishes great poets. Consider how power-
fully it contrasts with the two first verses of the next poem on the generous Jack :—
" '0! I've got a plum cake, and a rare feast I'll make, Come, schoolfellows, come at my call ;
I assure you 'tis nice, and we'll each have a slice— Here's more than enough for us all !'
"Thus said little Jack, as he gave it a smack, And sharpened his knife to begin ;
Nor was there one found upon the playground So'cross that he would not come in."
The author evidently felt that the name Jack suggested the characteristically generous qualities of the bluff English sailor who strikes his open hand familiarly and heartily ou the subject of his generosities. " Thus said little Jack, as he gave it a smack," is carefully contrasted with " Thus said little George, and begin- ning to gorge." The central feature of these powerful pictures is in the relation of these two lines. 'Look upon this picture and on that.' Now what has our remorseless editor done with that powerful and gloomy creation which is so needful for bringing the brighter conception into full relief ? He reads it thus :--
" 'I've got a plum cake, and a fine feast I'll make, So nice to have all to myself I can eat every day while the rest are at play, And then put it by on the shelf ! '
Thus said little John, and how soon it was gone !
For with zeal to his cake he applied, While fingers and thumbs for the sweetmeats and plums Were hunting and digging beside."
The German comedian's reehauffis of Shakespeare show us nothing worse than this. Jack is the generous hero, and the greedy one is turned into John, simply to avoid the vivid pic- torial Saxon of "gorge." Then instead of the strong masterly strokes in the picture " I'll eat, and Pll stuff, and I'll cram I" —the purest possible expression of real gluttony, we have the faint and feeble squeal of selfishness " How nice to have all to myself !" as if the boluses and pills could have cured that feeling, or inspiredanythiug but regret that he hadn't taken a longer time over it. Then the clumsy corrector betrays himself, for in the corrected poem, as in the original, the little glutton is taken ill before he
has done his cake, from the mere magnitude of his first meal.
"After eating his fill, he was taken so ill."
—we are told in the development of the plot,—clearly implying he had stopped because lie could not eat more, not because there was no more to eat. Now in the corrected second verse, on the contrary, the careless artist who tried to tone down a picture too vivid for his squeamish taste had made him finish his cake in order to rhyme with John. "Thus said little John, and how
soon was it gone "—a false touch, we may notice, from any point of view, for a cake which it was physically possible for the boy to devour in this way could not have satisfied the imaginative conditions of the picture, or given rise to the vision of "every day" putting much by "on the shelf." But this is the natural and fatal result of trying to retouch pictures by great masters.
We are happy to report that the classical poem on " Young Jew and the Shoulder of Mutton " hits not been in this way "restored." Young Jem is as little ashamed of having his dinner
cooked at the baker's, as familiar with that gentleman, as ready to appear in the streets with his own dinner, and as reckless of
public opinion when the batter-pudding " sails along the street," as in our early days. He still seizes the luckless shoulder of
mutton by the knuckle and rescues it front the gutter with the same moral courage lie formerly displayed, nor is there a touch of any kind calculated to weaken the general effect. Probably this is because the alterpative lay between leaving out the poem altogether and idealizing it. The editor would have put a tart for the batter-padding and a saddle for the shoulder of mutton, if it had been of any use,—but the boy's plebeian conception of
carrying home his own dinner was incapable of idealization.
The illustrations are pretty, but are too modern for the poems, and as we have noticed in the case of the " White-hand Post," not always carefully conceived in the true spirit of the "young persons" who wrote the verses. Little Jack, for instance, should have been represented in the very act of giving his cake "a smack," and should be a burly, jolly little boy, not the infantine philanthropist here represented. We approve cordially the re-
publication of the quaint old poems, but we implore the pub- lishers to restore the old text in future editions.