‘The Poet of Childhood’: Remembering Eugene Field

By Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.
September 21, 2021 Updated: September 21, 2021

Most journalism is ephemeral.

The news reports, opinion columns, and commentaries on sports, fashion, health, and dining are brushed aside by tomorrow’s headlines and shifting interests. Here today and gone tomorrow are the usual watchwords in the Fourth Estate.

We readers may have our favorite writers—I, for example, particularly relish the editorials by Conrad Black, Roger Kimball, and Joy Pullmann—but nearly all their observations, like mine, are written in water rather than on stone.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some still read the journalism of George Orwell or Ernie Pyle, who was a World War II chronicler of American foot soldiers and sailors. The literary and cultural pieces by Joseph Epstein, one of the finest essayists of the past century, are collected in a number of books. We read these older newspapers and magazine articles because they strike a chord or possess a timeless theme.

In general, however, we take momentary pleasure in such pieces and then move on.

Here’s an excellent example. Suppose someone asked you which writer holds the title as America’s first columnist. Had you asked me that same question just a couple of days ago, even though I write columns, I would have shrugged, shaken my head, and said “No clue.”

Let’s go exploring.

The Man

Eugene Field (1850–1895) was born in Saint Louis. His mother died when he was 6, and his father, who passed away when Field was a teenager, had sent him and his brother to live with relatives in Massachusetts. Field later enrolled in three colleges, but never attained a degree. At the age of 23, he married Julia Comstock, age 16. Together they had eight children, five of whom survived into adulthood.

During this time of his life, Field worked for several papers before he finally landed a position with the Chicago Daily News. Here he began putting out a light, humorous column called “Sharps and Flats,” where he focused especially on the actors and actresses of his day and on baseball players. These pieces brought him wide renown and were eventually collected into books, which remain available from online suppliers.

“Sharps and Flats” accounts for Field’s being dubbed “America’s first columnist,” but popular as they once were, those largely forgotten columns fail to explain the many honors bestowed on him following his early death.

writer Eugene_Field
Eugene Field was America’s first columnist and a writer of children’s poetry and humorous essays. U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. (Public Domain)

The Poet of Childhood

While at the Chicago Daily News, Field was also writing scores of poems, some of them either aimed at or about children. In 1888, he won wide acclaim for “Little Boy Blue” and went on to write other poems for boys and girls. These verses captured the hearts and imaginations of the public, and it is for them that Field is best remembered today.

Even during his lifetime, Field was called “The Children’s Poet.” Others called him “The Poet of Childhood,” which in my opinion comes closer to the mark regarding the subject of his poetry. Some of his poems appeal to children, but others such as “Little Boy Blue,” which recollects a child who has died, are clearly intended for adults.

Several of his poems are still found in collections for children today, or in beautifully illustrated stand-alone volumes. Four of his best-known works are “Little Boy Blue,” “The Duel,” “Jest ‘Fore Christmas,” and “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”

Angel Song

In Field’s lifetime, the death of babies and toddlers was not at all uncommon, and many poets in the Victorian Age wrote sentimental verse about these heartbreaking departures.

Field was no exception. In “Little Boy Blue,” he opens his poem with a stanza about dust and rust appearing on a child’s toy dog and toy soldier. We then learn that one night the little boy goes off to his trundle bed, falls asleep, “And as he was dreaming, an angel song/ Awakened our Little Boy Blue.”

At the poem’s end, we find the toy dog and soldier faithfully waiting for his return:

“And they wonder, as waiting these 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.”

A confession: This poem, which I read so long ago in my childhood, left me misty-eyed when rereading it for this article. Like Winston Churchill, sometimes I am a blubberer.

Dinky_Bird_by_Maxfield_Parrish,_1904
One of eight color plates by Maxfield Parrish, from the 1904 collection of Eugene Field’s “Poems of Childhood.” The plate illustrates “The Dinky Bird,” a poem about the freedom of children’s play and imagination. (PD-US)

On a Lighter Note

Like “Little Boy Blue,” at least two more of Field’s poems—“Jest ‘Fore Christmas” and “The Duel”—were in the 1954 “Childcraft” series my parents purchased for our home. Unlike “Little Boy Blue,” two of these were humorous pieces of verse.

The Duel” tells the story of the gingham dog and the calico cat, and how one night they get into a terrible fight. Here’s the final stanza:

“Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of the dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)”

But one of my favorites of all the poetry in this “Childcraft” collection was “Jest ‘Fore Christmas.” The first stanza provides a wonderful sample of the boy’s personality and Field’s use of vernacular, both of which made me smile then and still do:

“Father calls me William, sister calls me Will,
Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill!
Mighty glad I ain’t a girl—ruther be a boy,
Without them sashes curls an’ things that’s worn by Fauntleroy!
Love to chawnk green apples an’ go swimmin’ in the lake—
Hate to take the castor-ile they give for belly-ache!
‘Most all the time, the whole year round, there ain’t no flies on me,
But jest ‘fore Christmas I’m as good as I kin be!”

That last line acts as the refrain to the poem as the boy recounts his mischievous behavior, but then tells readers: “For Christmas, with its lots an’ lots of candies, cakes and toys,/ Was made, they say, for proper kids, an’ not for naughty boys.” The voice of the boy and his word usage are spot on in this poem.

Epoch Times Photo
Statue of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod in Washington Park, Denver, here with only two figures shown. The statue was inspired by Eugene Field’s poem for children by that name. (Keri S. Hathaway/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Lullaby

In “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” Field has put together a poem that is as much a sedative as a baby’s pacifier. Read aloud the first few lines:

“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.”

And then Field delivers this sweet and charming ending:

“Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.”

Given its hypnotic power, we can well understand why there are a dozen or more children’s books devoted to this poem alone.

Homage

After Field’s death, several of the communities in which he’d lived honored him. His Saint Louis house is now a museum, and several parks and schools across the Midwest bear his name. Statues erected to remember him include one of Wynken, Blyken, and Nod, which stands in Denver’s Washington Park near the house where he once lived.

In his last days, Field was working on his book “The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac,” in which he recounts his lifelong passion for ink, paper, and the printed word. Here in Chapter V, “Baldness and Intellectuality,” he writes: “Books, books, books—give me ever more books, for they are the caskets wherein we find the immortal expressions of humanity—words, the only things that live forever!”

By no means do all our words live forever. But those that do, including those verses by The Poet of Childhood, are gifts to the human spirit.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.