Reviews 2015

British Children’s Poetry in the Romantic Era: Verse, Riddle, and Rhyme

British Children’s Poetry in the Romantic Era: Verse, Riddle, and Rhyme. Donelle Ruwe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 253 pages. $85.00 (hardback).

Donelle Ruwe’s monograph is an excellent study of secular children’s verse between 1780 and 1835. As you would expect from the editor of Culturing the Child: Essays in Memory of Mitzi Myers (2005) and Co-President of 18th- and 19th-century British Women Writers Association, Ruwe is an erudite scholar and a flag-bearer for women writers of the past. What a delight to have a book devoted to children’s poetry covering a relatively short period of history so that insightful in-depth analysis is possible. As the vast majority of Romantic era poetry for children was written by women, what a joy to find the pages full of references to the often neglected Taylors, O’Keeffe, Smith et al. Ruwe has been extremely thorough in her investigation of children’s poetry of the Romantic period and has come up with exciting and original new research.

Ruwe makes a convincing case for the significance of Original Poems, 1804, which many commentators mark as one of the earliest poetry collections to appeal to children (its sales were good and ushered in many copycat volumes) but often neglect the contributors to it apart from the Taylor sisters. She offers persuasive new ideas and material relating to this seminal work and its authorship, including a focus on Adelaide O’Keeffe, one of its contributors, assessing her work in a fascinating new light. For example, Ruwe gives attention to O’Keeffe’s treatment of topics such as slavery and the fact that she links children’s poetry with "active learning" (108). One chapter is devoted to Ann Taylor’s "My Mother" (1804) and Ruwe then charts the changing landscape of the poem’s representation and reception in the years following its publication.

Another often overlooked children’s poet of this period, Sara Coleridge, has a chapter to herself, which focuses among other things on handmade literacies in the shape of versified games and study guides, demonstrating that "functional verse intended to help children learn to read can become a complex and multilayered poetic expression" (141). Ruwe concludes by considering the popular papillonade, featuring authors such as Roscoe and Dorset. Her Introduction also gives due recognition to precursors, such as Watts and Barbauld.

As far as I am aware, this is the first account of the period which cites the key texts (and a good number of minor ones), identifies the significant differences between poetry written for children and adults, and takes careful note of how childhood is constructed in the poetry. More importantly, Ruwe extends readers’ knowledge of the period through her diligent scholarship. To that end, Ruwe has examined a huge number of poems of this era in collections and anthologies, divided them into selected categories, and studied their themes, forms and stylistic conventions. She also provides detailed notes and useful appendixes.

Inevitably, there are one or two assertions in this book with which one could quibble. Ruwe declares that "verse in the schoolroom canon responds close reading, and so scholars find this verse embarrassingly bad" (2). Any genre of poetry has its fair share of "embarrassingly bad" verse but it is not necessary to equate poetry for children with the "schoolroom canon" in the first place and, furthermore, to suggest that the quality is too poor for careful analysis. Indeed Ruwe herself provides examples of striking poetry that is worthy of careful reading, and it is worth remembering that outstanding poetry by William Blake and Charlotte Smith comes into the chosen period.

It is also the case that the most memorable poetry for children is often light, though not necessarily slight, like the best nursery rhymes, and that sound is an important feature; that is, more of the ear and voice, the stage rather than the page. Indeed, although Ruwe talks about the floodgates for children’s verse opening after 1804, she does not highlight the fact that a lot of this verse was in the nursery rhyme tradition.

Nor was I entirely convinced by Ruwe’s line on Romantic-era children’s poetry as treating young readers seriously as "rational creatures" with "real responsibilities and real power" (19). I would take issue with the notion of the poetry of this period (apart from some of Blake’s poems) empowering the child as much of it was still limited and didactic.

Reviewers always notice gaps and one of the most glaring to my mind was the absence of Dorothy Wordsworth, who was not interested in publication but wrote several notable examples for her brother’s children in the first decade of the 19th century. Yet Ruwe was willing to take account of other examples of domestic literature, such as the handmade verse cards of Sara Coleridge and several mentions of Jane Johnson. Another odd omission was Thomas Hood, who wrote one of the most scurrilous and popular parodies of Taylor’s "My Mother" in this period. Hood’s rejoinder, entitled "A Lay of Real Life" (1826), was a welcome contrast to the sentimentality of the original: "Who let me starve to buy her gin,/Till all my bones came through my skin,/Then called me 'ugly little sin'/My Mother..."

Ruwe also takes the view that "scholarly unease with Blake as a children’s author has a long history" (10) and fails to examine his work in detail. Most critics would agree that Blake was writing an early crossover text and certainly addressing adults as well as children. As Blake is the most original and illustrious poet of this period, it seems odd not to give his work more attention. He was also the first poet to write in the first person as a child: "I love to rise in a summer morn/ When the birds sing on every tree" ("The School Boy," 1789) and he certainly includes children in his audience as most of the poems in Innocence are addressed to children or refer to them, including the Introduction, which talks of writing "[i]n a book that all may read...happy songs/Every child may joy to hear" (1789).

Despite these small criticisms from a fellow enthusiast, I cannot stress enough what an engrossing and original piece of work this is and a most welcome addition to the limited research available on the history of children’s poetry. Ruwe’s well-informed and highly readable book deserves to become a standard text on the subject and should encourage scholars to discover more about this captivating yet strangely disregarded genre of children’s literature.

Morag Styles
Homerton College, UK

Works Cited

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence. 1789. London: Dover, 1971. Print.

Ruwe, Donelle, ed. Culturing the Child: Essays in Memory of Mitzi Myers. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.

Taylor, Ann, and Jane and Adelaide O’Keeffe. Original Poems for Infant Minds. London: Darton, 1804. Print.