In my childhood, my literary education was guided by my mother and also my imagination. The first stories I was acquainted with were those told by my mother while I sat in her lap on a summer evening on the front porch. She rocked while she told the stories. Two of them stayed with me, as I asked for them over and over again, during the warm Southern evenings accented by katydids and lightning bugs and the hum of her voice. There was Lambikins and The Little Red Hen, both of whom outwitted the bad fox every time. The Little Red Hen had scissors with her and cut her way out of the fox’s bag. I forget how Lambikins escaped, but both used their ability to outwit the evil fox. I also remember feeling sorry for the fox’s children, when he came home with an empty bag, and they remained hungry.
When I began to wrestle with the written word, however, my world widened forever. For my seventh Christmas, I received Eugene Field’s Poems of Childhood from my grandmother. My mother and I both were captivated by the poems and also the magnificent illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. Those pictures will always be in my head. (I also had a Parrish-illustrated play that I loved throughout my growing up. I don’t know which of our children now has that.)
I think the tragic poems still draw me back into Field’s book, as it also did with my mother. “Little Boy Blue” evokes tears even now: the story of a little boy whose toys were faithful to him and waited for his return even though he had died in childhood. Legend holds that this was about Field’s son, but his death occurred a year after this poem was written. The poignant ending continues to have its power: “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.”
Another tragic poem is “The Little Peach.” My mother and I both agreed that this was one of our favorites, despite its sorrow. Johnny Jones and his Sister Sue take bites from the green peach they knocked down from the tree. “Under the turf where the daisies grew/They planted John and his Sister Sue,” were the lines that caught me, but all because of the Maxfield Parrish illustration that accompanies the poem. These two creative “fields” brought me my first fascination with books and poetry.”
Tragedy is not the sole proprietor of this volume, however. There are close to 200 pages of poetry collected here. Only a few have claimed their own fame: “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” “Jest ‘Fore Christmas,” “The Duel” (the battle between the gingham dog and the calico cat), “Seein’ Things at Night.” Many others are light-hearted and fun to read out loud. I love the lyricism of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe— ” the rhythm captures an essence of our human need for order. In this poem, the Parrish illustration in its mystic setting provides the right mood for a sleepy child.
When I wonder how our sense of timing, our joy in particular words and phrasings, the plots of simple stories suited to childhood affect our later use of language, I find the answers in what we heard and read in our first years. Our ideas form, our manner of speaking and writing, can be traced back to what held meaning for us not only in ideas but in speech patterns and emotions. These remain with us. I am grateful for wandering in the Fields.