If you wish to read some real poetry to your children (and I highly recommend it), here’s where to start.
First, this post from George Grant, who knows more about it than I do—not touching children’s poetry specifically, but nevertheless useful. And now:
Poems in the Air
As I hope the introduction to this post has led you to expect, Christendom has a habit of surrounding its inhabitants with good poetry. First, much of the Bible consists of poetry, and there’s good reason for it to be read and enjoyed as such.
Second, if you are in a church that doesn’t sing good songs—the great hymns of the church and really excellent settings of the Psalms—I highly recommend that you find a good hymnbook (try op shops) and start learning them as a family. Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel—these are among the greatest poetic works of Christendom and no home will suffer from more of them.
Third, there are many folk songs and carols that show the work of anonymous poets. Why not introduce these to your family? At the moment I’ve been particularly enjoying Saint Brendan’s Fair Isle, a rollicking song following the legendary adventures of the very real Irish missionary whose travels took him as far as the Americas and whose example inspired many others, including Columbus. Down in Yon Forest is an incredibly rich and allusive Christmas carol. And then you’ve got classics like The Black Velvet Band, Scotland the Brave, The Blacksmith of Brandywine, The Juice of the Barley, A Pub With No Beer…well, maybe not the last two, if that’s one tradition of Christendom you feel uncomfortable about! I do recommend Charlie Zahm if you’re looking for good recordings of good folk songs.
Classic Collections for Children
A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson – this is a classic collection of children’s poetry containing many nice little poems, like The Lamplighter:
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!
Sing Song by Christina Rossetti – another collection especially for children, by one of the greatest poetesses of Christendom. I’m not all that familiar with the collection, but I feel confident recommending anything she’s written.
The peacock has a score of eyes,
With which he cannot see;
The cod-fish has a silent sound,
However that may be;No dandelions tell the time,
Although they turn to clocks;
Cat's-cradle does not hold the cat,
Nor foxglove fit the fox.
A Moral Alphabet, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, Cautionary Tales for Children, and others by Hilaire Belloc – a lifelong friend of GK Chesterton’s, Belloc is most fondly remembered for his poems such as Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion or Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death. Perhaps some of his poems are really more suited to adults, but even children should find them amusing:
Henry King, Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies.
The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
"There is no Cure for this Disease.
"Henry will very soon be dead."
His Parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried, "Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch, and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires..."
With that, the Wretched Child expires.
The Owl and the Pussycat, The Jumblies, sundry limericks, and other works by Edward Lear – this author was famous for writing complete nonsense (in fact I once saw a collection of his poems titled “The Complete Nonsense”) which is nevertheless charming and quaint, perfect for children. Everyone knows and loves The Owl and the Pussycat, but I have to admit that The Jumblies is my favourite.
When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne were my very favourite collections of verse when I was little, and many phrases from them have found their into the Rowntree lexicon – “some people like marmalade, if it’s very thickly spread”; “King John was not a good king; he had his little ways”; “Sir Brian Sir Brian as bold as a lion”; “I have to eat it for him ‘cause his teeth are rather new”; “Alexander Beetle”; and never to be forgotten, the sailor who “did nothing but bask until he was saved.” One of our many favourites from these collections is Disobedience:
James JamesMorrison MorrisonWeatherby George DupreeTook greatCare of his Mother,Though he was only three.James JamesSaid to his Mother,"Mother," he said, said he;"You must never go downto the end of the town,if you don't go down with me."…
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil by JRR Tolkien is also a worthwhile collection. Like many of Tolkien’s works, it contains some perfectly child-friendly poems, but his bigger legendarium is still waiting to burst out in poems like Oliphant and The Last Farewell. But there’s much to enjoy here—my two favourites are Shadow Bride, a variation on the Beren and Luthien theme, and Errantry, which despite being complete nonsense is well worth studying since it is written in a form so complex and difficult that only this poem was ever written with it.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot is his classic collection for children, which I personally enjoy much more than his more eclectic free verse stuff. Set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber in his musical Cats, this is the best book of cat poems you’ll ever read, with unforgettable characters such as Macavity the Mystery Cat, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, and Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.
The Complete Mother Goose – this classic collection of nursery rhymes is available in some very nice facsimile editions, complete with lovely illustrations, and is most enjoyable.
Authors Children Love
I also recommend getting collections of poems by the following authors:
AB “Banjo” Paterson – the great Australian poet wrote lots of really enjoyable poems. Children will likely enjoy the funnier selections. Dad used to read these to us and I have the fondest memories of classics like Johnson’s Antidote, A Bush Christening, and of course Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. Then there are the ones everyone knows like The Man from Snowy River and Waltzing Matilda. You can get most of these in illustrated picture-book form, but if you’ll be guided by me, you’ll skip all that and go straight to The Complete Banjo Paterson, which includes such joyous and evergreen prose selections as The Cast-Iron Canvasser and The Merino Sheep.
GK Chesterton – a dazzlingly brilliant poet, many of Chesterton’s works will be enjoyed by all ages. I can’t think, just now, of any of his poetry written specifically for children, but some of it will be quite accessible to them and will lead them on to a long and fruitful acquaintance with Chesterton. More on specific Chesterton poems later.
Rudyard Kipling’s poetry is similarly worth having around. If— is a good poem to drum into any little boy’s head. The poetry he wrote for the Jungle Books is great stuff. And I can’t imagine anyone not liking The Ballad of East and West.
Poems to Remember
Here are just a handful of classic meditative poems, which might be good for older children to memorise.(Also recommended: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Anne Bradstreet).
Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne
Sonnet LXXIX by Edmund Spenser and others
Great Poems, Great Occasions
Classic narrative poems have long been used to commemorate great events or simply to tell great stories. Here are a few of my favourites:
Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood, classic Anglo-Saxon poems. The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is probably the best, and try to find a poetry translation of The Dream of the Rood (which is about the Crucifixion) that doesn’t tone down the extreme manliness of the original. Use your discretion when deciding when to start reading Beowulf, of course—Dad read it aloud to us when some of us were still toddlers, and it didn’t scar any of us for life (unless you call a near fanatical love for Anglo-Saxon poetry a scar, of course).
But let me continue.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – a story of folly, redemption, and sisterly love.
The Lady of Shallott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson - a wonderful introduction to his romantic, medieval-tinged works.
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes – a lushly romantic tale of forbidden love, crime, and suicide, but still somehow a classic and hard to overlook!
Lepanto by GK Chesterton – the classic poem about the great naval victory in which the ‘last knight of Christendom’ gathered a rag-tag force to fight off the massive fleet of the Islamic tyrant Suleiman.
The Ballad of the White Horse by GK Chesterton, while we’re at it: the great epic poem of King Alfred the Great.
Ivry by Lord Macaulay – commemorates the great Huguenot victory of Ivry which consolidated Henry of Navarre’s claim on the French throne. Like Lepanto, it’s impossible to read this without wanting to give three rousing cheers. Also, unlike the somewhat self-centred romanticism of The Lady of Shallott and The Highwayman, this ballad is full of vim and people fighting for good causes:
- Now glory to the Lord of Hosts, from whom all glories are!
- And glory to our Sovereign Liege, King Henry of Navarre!
- Now let there be the merry sound of music and of dance,
- Through thy corn-fields green, and sunny vines, O pleasant land of France!
- And thou, Rochelle, our own Rochelle, proud city of the waters,
- Again let rapture light the eyes of all thy mourning daughters.
- As thou wert constant in our ills, be joyous in our joy,
- For cold, and stiff, and still are they who wrought thy walls annoy.
- Hurrah! Hurrah! a single field hath turned the chance of war,
- Hurrah! Hurrah! for Ivry, and Henry of Navarre.
These are all the poems that occur to me immediately, and I feel I must have forgotten quite a few. I do recommend investing in a number of anthologies of classic English verse and making yourself familiar with the contents—this will introduce you to more child-friendly verse, and give you somewhere to send your children when they start outgrowing Milne and Lear. I do remember that we used to have a number of poetry textbooks used in schools in the ‘70s and ‘80s—perhaps not the best poems (I still wonder what they were thinking, including Beatles lyrics) but some good reading-fodder for young poetry fans.
Do you have any favourite poems for children that I’ve missed here? Let us know in the comments!