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These slender books of children’s poetry are often boxed together with Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner as a set. There is some sense in this. Among the lighthearted “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard are several pictures of a well-known toy bear. There is also mention of a bear (whose name is sometimes, but not always, Pooh) and of a Pooh (who is sometimes, but not always, a bear). And all of it looks at the world through the eyes of a small, active child (sometimes, but not always, Christopher Robin), a child between the ages of three and six whose mind is full of questions and games and make-believe.
To be sure, not all of it is poetry of the highest calibre. Some may find their unvarying tone of infantile sweetness rather cloying. Dorothy Parker, for instance, reviewing one of Milne’s books in her Constant Reader column in The New Yorker, observed: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” And while I am digressing, here is part of the poem Parker wrote in response to being called “America’s A. A. Milne”:
Dotty had a
And that (said Dotty)
This poem isn’t in these books, however. What you will find in When We Were Very Young is 45 brief verses colored by sentimentality, fatherly indulgence, and a love of childhood. Most of the poems would make excellent bedtime reading for a child up to 5 years of age, though only a few of them will often be requested as encores. Among the standouts are “Happiness” (because the above poem by Dorothy Parker spoofs it), “Disobedience” (starring James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree), “Teddy Bear” (featuring Edward Bear, better known to us as Pooh), and “Bad Sir Brian Botany” (about a bully’s comeuppance). The final poem of this collection, “Vespers” (in which Christopher Robin says his bedtime prayers) is apparently the property of the Library of the Queen’s Doll’s House. So there.
In the 35 poems of Now We Are Six, Milne continues his versifying observations of childhood. In “King John’s Christmas” a silly king wishes for nothing more than an India rubber ball. “Binker” relates the lifestyle of an imaginary friend. “The Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak” makes light of chivalrous cowardice. “Us Two” and “The Friend” are further Christopher-and-Pooh poems. “King Hilary and the Beggarman” is a verse-fable about how a beggar-man took the place of the Lord High Chancellor. As in the companion book, the rest is filled up with the imaginative notions of a small, well-brought-up English boy.
If these verses turn out to be just the thing your Little Jane or Billy Moon wants read to her or him before lights-out, I would further recommend A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and perhaps some of Christina Rossetti’s verses, which have been published under various titles.