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A Poet and His Nursemaid

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 05, 2010

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.



17 Comments »

  1. My favorite Eugene Field poem involves the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat (“that side by side on the table sat”). I also like his “Jes’ Before Christmas.”

    I had no idea of the Mormon connection, though. How does Ardis discover these things?

    That “Little Boy Blue” is a tearjerker every time I read it. Knowing that it was written about the passing of one of his own children makes it that much more poignant. Hopefully Mr. Field will, on resurrection morning, be able to experience again “the touch of a little hand [and] The smile of a little face.”

    Comment by Clark — January 5, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  2. Thanks for this, Ardis. I remember the first and last of the poems you quoted, not from the completely faded memories of my early childhood, but from the ever dimming memories of my children’s early childhood, when I used to read these poems to them.

    But you left out my favorite Christmas poem (which the New York Times printed in full in Field’s obituary), “Jest ‘fore Christmas”, which contains a hilarious reference to a now missing verse (in our hymnbook, at least) in the old missionary song “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.”

    Comment by Mark B. — January 5, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  3. Thanks, Clark. I *knew* I couldn’t be the only Field fan out there! (But I can’t tell you my secret or I’d be out of a job. So there.)

    That’s what I depend on YOU for, Mark. Let’s see who else spots your reference before we spell it out!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 5, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  4. Ooo, is it the “cannibuls” line?

    Comment by Alison — January 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  5. I grew up hearing and memorizing “Little Boy Blue” and “Jest ‘for Christmas,” (my dad’s favorite). “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” was in the Childcraft Book #1, a favorite when I was a child. I inherited the set of books and now read the same poems and nursery rhymes to my granddaughter.

    Comment by Maurine — January 5, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  6. We have a winner: Alison–but it’s the end of that line, and the next, that quotes, sort of, Reginald Heber’s words:

    “Where ev’ry prospeck pleases, an’ only man is vile.”

    Cannibalism is vile? :-)

    Other interesting notes from his obituary, that make me appreciate him even more:

    First:

    He was thrown out of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, for a prank–the Times was too decorous to describe the prank in an obituary. He then went to the University of Missouri, where he was a “roistering” student, met the lovely Miss Julia Comstock, fell in love and got married a few years later.

    Sounds like he had more fun in college than I did!

    Second:

    After college he went to Europe.

    Attaining his majority in 1871, and entering into possession of a considerable patrimony, he went to Europe, where, for nearly a year, he enjoyed himself after a fashion so reckless and luxurious that he returned with little left except an agreeable experience and a vast accumulation of books and curious objects that had attracted his fancy and helped to empty his pocketbook.

    I guess all I lacked was a considerable patrimony.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 5, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  7. To be fair to Eugene, his brother Roswell said in a funeral address that tales of Eugene’s financial recklessness in Europe were greatly overblown, that a far greater share of his father’s estate was lost in the stock market crash of 1873 than anything else. Still, he did say those tales were “overblown,” not utterly untrue!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 5, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

  8. Ah, but is it a shame to have blown an entire inheritance on luxurious living in Europe? We all know how inherited wealth ruins character–but it seems that Field got over it in a hurry, and then, as the Time obituary says, “It now became necessary to work.”

    And what a blessing that was to him–and to all the little children who go to sleep with Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 5, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  9. awww, Little Boy Blue makes me tear up every time, but I had always assumed it was written by Louisa M Alcott (don’t laugh at my evident lack of edukayshun).

    I loved the letter he wrote to her- hard to tell if he really did remember her, or if he did, and it was just written in the style of the time. Need to remember that not everyone would respond as I would, with lots of !!!!!!!,
    :-)))))))and CAPITALS for emphasis!

    Another great post, thanks, Ardis. Has anyone nominated you for Mormon of the Year?

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 5, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  10. Anne, “if nominated I shall not run, if elected I shall not serve.” (Who said that, by the way? I don’t have a clue.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 5, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  11. It was a Civil War bod- possibly General Sherman?

    (were tanks named after him? About that, I don’t have a clue!)

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 5, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  12. Yes, dear UK sister, it was Sherman who said it, and the Sherman tank was named after him. That tank was probably more dangerous to Georgia (see, e.g., Fort Benning) than it was to the Germans. (Actually, it was quite effective against the Germans, but only because, like the white sheep vis-a-vis the black sheep, there were so many more of them. But, it was underarmored and had too small a gun. Too bad our armored divisions didn’t have a bunch of Russian T-34s.)

    Oh, and if you don’t catch the relevance of Georgia, here’s a start on American Civil War history. (If you decide to sing this at your next ward party, you might check to make sure first that there aren’t any Georgians among the missionaries–they apparently don’t like it much.)

    There is a Mormon connection to Sherman’s famous statement. When Mo Udall was asked if he would run for President in 1984, he said: “If nominated, I shall run to Mexico. If elected, I shall fight extradition.”

    Comment by Mark B. — January 5, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  13. I still recall (because I was on my mission and we played the tapes over and over) a stirring recitation of “Little Boy Blue” by Thomas S. Monson.

    http://tinyurl.com/y8ftsds

    Thanks for “the rest of the story,” Ardis.

    Comment by Reed Russell — January 5, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  14. Wonderful!

    Comment by Edje Jeter — January 6, 2010 @ 7:37 am

  15. The “Little Boy Blue” poem reminds me of a poem my great-great grandmother copied into a scrapbook after recording the death of her fifth child. She lost six of her nine children to various illnesses when they were young. So tragic.

    “Oh the stillness of the room
    Where the children used to play,
    Oh the silence of the house,
    Since the children went away.

    This is the mother life—
    To bear, to love, to lose;
    Till all the sweet sad tale is told
    In a pair of little shoes,

    In a single broken toy
    In a flower pressed, to keep
    All fragrant still the faded life
    Of them who fell asleep.”

    I just looked up the author. Mary Clemmer. It’s from a long poem called “The Little Boot.” Poems about the death of children must have been more common back then, since it’s not a topic you see addressed much nowadays.

    Comment by Researcher — January 6, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  16. Sherman is the first to have been quoted with the thought, but those _exact_ words were first widely reported to have been from President Johnson.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shermanesque_statement

    Comment by Bookslinger — January 7, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

  17. Perhaps there are fewer poems about the death of children, but the genre does not end. “Tears in Heaven” jumps into my mind, a song rather than a poem per se, but those who do suffer such a loss who are of a literary bent still document their grief.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — January 8, 2010 @ 7:51 am

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