You know when you pick up a book in a charity shop and it prompts an unexpected flood of memories? This happened to me when I chanced upon a copy of The book of thousand poems for the young and the very young. The dustjacket was unfamiliar but I opened the book and immediately remembered it vividly from my own childhood.
The book of a thousand poems had a certain romantic resonance for me even when I first encountered it as a primary school child because it wasn’t a new book even then. It was one of a handful of books my mother had kept from her own childhood in the 1950s: I also remember all four books in the Little Women sequence, Black Beauty, and the Susan Coolidge books about Katy. It was a chunky little black volume with a battered cover; my mother, who never throws anything out, may still have the original but undoubtedly it had lost its spine by the time my three siblings and I had finished with it. Its physical appearance added to the romance: solid and black, it was one of the books that was always used as a schoolbook when we played old-fashioned school, or as a spellbook when we played witches. Looking at this copy I see that it was first published in 1942, which would explain the soggy rationing-era paper which was used for my mother’s copy.
I bought the book, of course – £1.99, a bargain. I’m amazed to find how much of the poetry in it I remember. The poetry of your childhood sticks with you, of course. I think I can still recite the whole of Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum from memory; when I came across Don Paterson’s description of the poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”, it was Each Peach Pear Plum which first came to mind, with its neat form of looping rhyme and narrative.
The poems in The book of a thousand poems are of, shall we say, mixed quality. The book is divided into sections, starting with nursery rhymes (mostly familiar and traditional), and following that with ‘Poems for the very young’; ‘Fantasy and fairyland’; ‘The seasons’; ‘Flowers and trees’; ‘Fables and stories’; ‘National and love of country’; ‘Prayers, graces and thanksgivings’. No modern-day gritty realism here: ‘traditional’ (for which read conservative) values, Christianity, and a determination to limit children to childish subjects only: fairies, flowers, Christmas and Easter.
I was utterly charmed by this. I was a soppy child and found my left-wing, right-on parents unutterably prosaic; the values embodied in The book of a thousand poems seemed incredibly romantic and dashing to me even as I recognised that the poems in praise of the Union Jack and how ‘To be an English boy or girl/Is much the best of all’ were absolute tosh. The selection of rather saccharine prayers thrilled me; like Anna in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I spent a marvellous, if short, period as a secret believer in a family of atheists, devoutly reading my self-imposed catechism:
We thank thee, Heavenly Father,
For all the lovely spring,
For primroses and bluebells,
And little birds that sing. (Mary Anderson)
The prayer section has stuck less in my memory, though, than the nature poems. Some are famous: Blake’s The Tyger, short extracts from Hiawatha. I wasn’t literarily discerning at that age and was most fond of the kind of poems which anthropomorphised seasons or flowers:
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears! (Sir William Watson)
Little ladies, white and green,
With your spears about you,
Will you tell us where you’ve been
Since we lived without you? (L. Alma Tadema*)
Most of the poems are like that: small poems which fit at least two to a page, a tumpty-tumpty rhythm, a solid(ish) rhyming scheme, and a conscious and condescending focus on child-appropriateness. Some are much better than others, but the majority seem to have been written in the first half of the twentieth century by people who were ‘writing down’ to children, carefully making sure that nothing troubling or unpretty was offered to little innocent minds.
I read the whole book, though, many times over. I think what I got from it was the first inkling of the way poetry works, particularly with image and metaphor. The rhythms and assonances of the words never struck me (and don’t strike me now) as being particularly remarkable, but even the rather twee imagery of poppies dressed in their fluttering silken gowns and snow falling like feathers seemed beautiful and marvellous to me, and I wrote lots of poems in imitation.
Those poems are all lost now, sadly. But looking at some of the poems I still like, it’s clear that a striking image or a clever metaphor is still irresistible for me. I wonder how much my taste was guided by this rather unremarkable book?