Somewhere, in the dim scraps of memory of your youngest childhood, you must retain a memory of this poem:
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe —
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea.
If not that, maybe you once sang this Christmas song, which was in a long-ago Primary songbook:
Why do the bells of Christmas ring?
Why do little children sing?
Once a lovely shining star,
Seen by shepherds from afar,
Gently moved until its light
Made a manger’s cradle bright.
There a darling baby lay,
Pillowed soft upon the hay;
And its mother sung and smiled:
“This is Christ, the holy Child!”
Therefore bells for Christmas ring.
Therefore little children sing.
Eugene Field, the author of these poems, was born in St. Louis in 1850 to well-to-do parents of Vermont ancestry. His father, Roswell Martin Field, was an attorney, the first retained by Dred Scot, the Virginia man born in slavery who asserted his freedom when he was taken by his master into a free state. Field’s mother died when he was five, and he and his younger brother went to live with a cousin in Massachusetts. As a child and young man he was groomed for the best education – his father insisted that the young Field’s letters to him be written always in Latin, as part of his scholastic preparation.
Following college graduation and a period in Europe, Field went into journalism, working first in St. Louis and later in Chicago. He published his first book of poetry in 1889, and remarkably established himself as America’s foremost children’s poet before his premature death only six years after that first book was published. Sentimental and Victorian though it was, some of his poetry still find a place in anthologies today.
Maybe you know him from his “Bibliomaniac’s Prayer”:
But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation’s way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold and keep,
Whereon, when other men shall look,
They’ll wail to know I got it cheap.
My personal favorite is one of several he wrote about the death of one of his own children:
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.
“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
“And don’t you make any noise!”
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue —
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place,
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.
So why a guest slot at Keepa?
Because from 1851 to 1853, a young girl named Temperance Westwood (later Moon; 1839-1922), barely more than a child herself, was Eugene Field’s nursemaid, washing, feeding, dressing him, sleeping in the nursery with him, singing him some of his first songs and telling him some of his earliest nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Temperance and her older sister Mercy, employed as a cook in the household, had been born in England, became converts to Mormonism, and emigrated to the United States with their family. They got as far as St. Louis, traveling up the Mississippi from New Orleans, when their mother became ill and the family had to leave their emigrant company until Mrs. Westwood could travel again. During their stay in St. Louis, the children were obliged to earn their own keep by doing whatever work they could find. The two young sisters were lucky to find a good situation with the Field family. The Westwood family made its way to Utah piecemeal over the next few years; in 1853, Temperance with an older brother made the trek.
In 1891, when Field was an established author, Temperance wrote to him and asked him if by chance he remembered his old nursemaid. He wrote back updating her on the situation of people she must have mentioned in her own letter; whether he actually remembered her, or whether he was simply the most cordial of men toward a public that must have included many people trying to claim an acquaintance, his letter was treasured by Temperance for the rest of her life:
Dear Mrs. Moon: Your letter pleased me very much indeed. I send you a copy of a picture of my mother and myself – a copy of one made when I was a little baby. Please tell me whether it looks natural to you. The Pomeroy girls, Mary and Stella, are both married. Mary lives here in Chicago, and has no children. Stella lives in St. Louis and has a large family. My aunt Belle is now a widow, living in Swanzey, N.H. She married a farmer named Angier. I married in 1875, and we have three children living, a girl of 15 and boys aged 12 and 9. We have lost two boys and one girl. My brother is married but has no children. He is one of the editors of the Kansas City Star I shall try to send you a picture of my father if I can get a copy made of one we have. Do let me hear from you often. Your letter interested me very much. God bless you. Ever sincerely yours, EUGENE FIELD
A trivial thing, perhaps, to all but Temperance Westwood Moon, but yet another early instance of the woof of Mormonism meeting the warp of the wider culture.