In today’s poetry feature, Brit gives us some decidedly unsettling children’s verse…
There are many horrific poems, nursery rhymes and stories aimed at children, but for true terror we need look no further than the words and illustrations of Heinrich Hoffman, and his famous 1845 collection of ‘Merry Tales and Funny Pictures’ (ahem), Struwwelpeter. All the poems are pretty ghastly, but The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb stands out for the illustration above and the nightmarishly abrupt couplet: “The door flew open, in he ran/The great, long, red-legged scissor-man“…
The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb
One day Mamma said “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys who suck their thumbs;
And ere they dream what he’s about,
He takes his great sharp scissors out,
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then,
You know, they never grow again.”
Mamma had scarcely turned her back,
The thumb was in, Alack! Alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home: there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”
Mervyn Peake’s book Rhymes Without Reason is the cultural item that has influenced me more than any other. I must have been about six or seven when I received a copy. Peake’s minimal, matter-of-fact nonsense poems, illustrated lavishly with whales on mantelpieces and weeping walruses, haunt me still… But the best poem is the last one, a work of infinite melancholy. Its accompanying painting – below – is a proper heartbreaker too.
(I have posted the poem on The Dabbler before, and a commenter observed that Morrissey performed a cover version of this – set to the tune from ‘Telegram Sam’ by T-Rex – at Preston Guild Hall in 1996. How apt.)
Sensitive, Seldom and Sad by Mervyn Peake
Sensitive, Seldom and Sad are we,
As we wend our way to the sneezing sea,
With our hampers full of thistles and fronds
To plant round the edge of the dab-fish ponds;
Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad
Oh, so Seldom and Sad.
In the shambling shades of the shelving shore,
We will sing us a song of the Long Before,
And light a red fire and warm our paws
For it’s chilly, it is, on the Desolate shores,
For those who are Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,
For those who are Seldom and Sad.
Sensitive, Seldom and Sad we are,
As we wander along through Lands Afar,
To the sneezing sea, where the sea-weeds be,
And the dab-fish ponds that are waiting for we
Who are, Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,
Oh, so Seldom and Sad.
Although not specifically aimed at kiddies, the American poet Hughes Mean‘s Antagonish (1899), inspired by a Canadian ghost story, appears in numerous books of children’s poems as an example of Nonsense Verse, and it has provided the lyric for various pop hits.
As a nipper I used to recite a variant of the first stanza with great amusement, but it also faintly gave me the willies and a sense of philosophical vertigo. In its full version it still does give me the willies – there’s just something about that ‘little’ in the antepenultimate line…
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…