Poetry for Children.

When I was studying for my MFA in Creative Writing we were frequently told that we should read poetry every day.

Aside from the inherent pleasure of reading poetry we were told that the daily practice would improve our own writing techniques, regardless of which field or genre of creative writing we were working in.

I specialized in Writing for Children, and so I focussed my research on poems that had actually been written for children, as well as poems that had not necessarily been intended for a child readership, but nevertheless were very good children’s poetry.

So let’s take a look at some poetry for children, and see how reading these poems is going to help us with developing our own individual writing styles.

Let’s begin in Germany in the mid-1800’s with

Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann:

When the children have been good,

That is, be it understood,

Good at meal-times, good at play,

Good all night and good all day—

They shall have the pretty things

Merry Christmas always brings.

Naughty, romping girls and boys

Tear their clothes and make a noise,

Spoil their pinafores and frocks,

And deserve no Christmas-box.

Such as these shall never look

At this pretty Picture-book.

Just look at him! there he stands,

With his nasty hair and hands.

See! his nails are never cut;

They are grimed as black as soot;

And the sloven, I declare,

Never once has combed his hair;

Anything to me is sweeter

Than to see Shock-headed Peter.


Here is cruel Frederick, see!

A horrid wicked boy was he;

He caught the flies, poor little things,

And then tore off their tiny wings,

He killed the birds, and broke the chairs,

And threw the kitten down the stairs;

And oh! far worse than all beside,

He whipped his Mary, till she cried.

The trough was full, and faithful Tray

Came out to drink one sultry day;

He wagged his tail, and wet his lip,

When cruel Fred snatched up a whip,

And whipped poor Tray till he was sore,

And kicked and whipped him more and more:

At this, good Tray grew very red,

And growled, and bit him till he bled;

Then you should only have been by,

To see how Fred did scream and cry!

So Frederick had to go to bed:

His leg was very sore and red!

The Doctor came, and shook his head,

And made a very great to-do,

And gave him nasty physic too.

But good dog Tray is happy now;

He has no time to say “Bow-wow!”

He seats himself in Frederick’s chair

And laughs to see the nice things there:

The soup he swallows, sup by sup—

And eats the pies and puddings up.

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 that suck their thumbs. 

And ere they dream what he’s about 

He takes his great sharp scissors 

And cuts their thumbs clean off, – and then

You know, they never grow again.”

Mamma had scarcely turn’d her back, 

The thumb was in, alack! alack!

The door flew open, in he ran, 

The great, long, red-legged scissorman. 

Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come 

And caught our 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.”

We’ve looked at free verse, but these are now what are known as form poetry, in other words they follow a strict set of rules of rhythm and rhyme within their structure. 

As may have already experienced, rhythm and rhyme delight children of pretty much all ages (not to mention adults).

Free verse tends to follow the natural rhythms and patterns of human speech––which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t use rhythm and meter. Our speech patterns are filled with rhythm and meter.

In form poetry the architecture––if you like––is the structure around which the music of the verse flows.

You could say that free verse is based on human speech, and form poetry is based on human song.

Walt Whitman is really the first significant poet to use free verse in the English language in the early 1900’s.

He based his technique on the king James Bible––which in itself was based on the Hebrew Tanach. Interestingly, the Biblical Psalms used a free verse technique known as parallelism. The thing about form poetry is that it’s very difficult to translate into foreign languages, so it’s lucky the psalms used a free-form that could be translated pretty easily.

Here’s an excerpt of Psalm 19 from an English version of the Tanach:

Psalm 19

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

A: The heavens declare the glory of God,

  B:  and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

A: Day to day pours out speech,

B:  and night to night reveals knowledge.

A: There is no speech, nor are there words,

B: whose voice is not heard.

A: Their voice goes out through all the earth,

B: and their words to the end of the world.

A: In them he has set a tent for the sun,

B: which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,

and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.

Notice how the Psalm appears at first sight to be free verse, but on closer inspection the lines are grouped into pairs, and rather than having rhyming words, they have rhyming ideas.  Each A line makes a statement, then each B line develops the statement.

This is how the first two lines look in the original Hebrew: This, if you feel brave, is how it sounds:

הַשָּׁמַיִם, מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד-אֵל;    וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו, מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ.

This, if you feel brave, is how it sounds:

haSHämayim m’šaP’riym K’vôdël ûmaásëh yädäy maGiyd räqiyª

Let’s look at what was going on in England in the mid-1800’s.

How Doth The Little Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale! 

How cheerfully he seems to grin

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in,

With gently smiling jaws!

This is one of the first poems in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Compared to Struuwelpeter it seems to celebrate the absurdity of dreams, and uses the fascinating random connections between ideas in a child’s mind.

The poem is actually a parody of a hymn. Victorian readers would have recognized the parody right away, and the hymn was commonly sung by school children in Victorian England:

From: How Doth the little busy bee by Isaac Watts.

How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower!


How skilfully she builds her cell!

How neat she spreads the wax!

And labors hard to store it well

With the sweet food she makes.

Which of these two poems is the better poem?

Here’s another Lewis Carroll parody from Alice in Wonderland:

You are old, Father William,

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head –

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,

“I feared it might injure the brain;

But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –

Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

“I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –

Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –

What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”

Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!”

This is the original by Robert Southey:

The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

The few locks which are left you are grey;

You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,

Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,

And abused not my health and my vigour at first

That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And pleasures with youth pass away,

And yet you lament not the days that are gone,

Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth could not last;

I thought of the future whatever I did,

That I never might grieve for the past.

Another great British children’s poet from the 1800’s was Edward Lear.

Lear was actually a realistic landscape painter, but today he’s chiefly known for his nonsense poetry, many of which were composed a form known as Limerick.

Here are some examples:

There was a Young Lady of Norway,

Who casually sat in a doorway;

When the door squeezed her flat, 

she exclaimed “What of that?”

This courageous Young Lady of Norway.

There was an Old Man of the South,

Who had an immoderate mouth;

But in swallowing a dish, 

that was quite full of fish,

He was choked, that Old Man of the South.

There was a Young Lady whose chin

Resembled the point of a pin;

So she had it made sharp, 

and purchased a harp,

And played several tunes with her chin.

There was an old man in a tree,

Whose whiskers were lovely to see;

But the birds of the air,

Pluck’d them perfectly bare,

To make themselves nests on that tree.

There was an Old Man of Peru,

Who watched his wife making a stew;

But once by mistake,

In a stove she did bake,

That unfortunate Man of Peru.

There was an Old Man in a boat,

Who said, ‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat!’

When they said, ‘No! you ain’t!’

He was ready to faint,

That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

So, your assignment is to write a limerick. You can use the Edward Lear from above, although there are some variations, such as, Lear’s last lines are variations on the first line. This is an Edward Gorey limerick:

Each night father fills me with dread
When he sits on the foot of my bed;
I’d not mind that he speaks
In gibbers & squeaks
But for seventeen years he’s been dead!

As you can see Gorey’s last lines are different.

Here to finish up with, an Epic Poem by Edward Lear: 

The Jumblies>

They went to sea in a sieve, they did;

In a sieve they went to sea:

In spite of all their friends could say,

On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,

In a sieve they went to sea.

And when the sieve turned round and round,

And every one cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”

They called aloud, “Our sieve ain’t big;

But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig:

In a sieve we’ll go to sea!”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.

They sailed away in a sieve, they did,

In a sieve they sailed so fast,

With only a beautiful pea-green veil

Tied with a ribbon, by way of a sail,

To a small tobacco-pipe mast.

And every one said who saw them go,

“Oh! won’t they be soon upset, you know?

For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long;

And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong

In a sieve to sail so fast.”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.

The water it soon came in, it did;

The water it soon came in:

So, to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet

In a pinky paper all folded neat;

And they fastened it down with a pin.

And they passed the night in a crockery-jar;

And each of them said, “How wise we are!

Though the night be dark, and the voyage be long,

Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,

While round in our sieve we spin.”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.

And all night long they sailed away;

And when the sun went down,

They whistled and warbled a moony song

To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,

In the shade of the mountains brown.

“O Timballo! How happy we are

When we live in a sieve and a crockery jar!

And all night long, in the moonlight pale,

We sail away with a pea-green sail

In the shade of the mountains brown.”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,—

To a land all covered with trees:

And they bought an owl, and a useful cart,

And a pound of rice, and a cranberry tart,

And a hive of silvery bees;

And they bought a pig, and some green jackdaws,

And a lovely monkey with lollipop paws,

And forty bottles of ring-bo-ree,

And no end of Stilton cheese.

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.

And in twenty years they all came back,—

In twenty years or more;

And every one said, “How tall they’ve grown!

For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,

And the hills of the Chankly Bore.”

And they drank their health, and gave them a feast

Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;

And every one said, “If we only live,

We, too, will go to sea in a sieve,

To the hills of the Chankly Bore.”

Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live:

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;

And they went to sea in a sieve.