Friday, April 30, 2010

When the cane gave way to cane sugar

Poetry Month, Day 30. When it comes to general poetry collections for children, I can't help but wonder when the sanitization of children's poetry began in earnest. Sure, we all expect to be shocked by the violence of Hoffman's Struwwelpeter (1845)
from "Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb"

and stunned by the colonial mindset and racism that constitute the weeds in Stevenson's otherwise fragrant, A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). The nursery rhyme collection, Lavender's Blue, was published in the 1950s and is pretty tame, all things considered. Sure there's the odd "don't walk on thin ice" or "don't play in the cinders" verse, but, by and large, the cautionary tone of the verses is minimal.

As I was diving through edited collections of children's poetry to create this 30 day, 30 title feast, I was intrigued by just how much stamina verses involving corporal punishment had with editors. While you'd be hard pressed to find a recent collection of poetry that references corporal punishment or that reprints some of the more gruesome cautionary verses of old (such poems are increasingly relegated to academic tomes for the study of children's literature), just 20 years ago such poems were commonplace in edited editions.

The 1963 Oxford Book of Poetry for Children (Edward Blishen, editor; Brian Wildsmith illustrator) that was reissued in paperback format as late as 1996, includes a short chapter of cautionary verses including Hilaire Belloc's "Matilda (Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death)" and this gem from Lewis Carroll:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
Wow! Wow! Wow!

I speak severely to my boy,
I beat him when he sneezes;
For he can thoroughly enjoy
The pepper when he pleases!
Wow! Wow! Wow!

Similarly, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (selected by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by Arnold Lobel) first published in 1983 includes Hoffmann's "The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup" and this tribute to spanking from Charles Henry Ross:

That's Jack;
Lay a stick on his back!
What's he done? I cannot say.
We'll find out tomorrow,
And beat him today.

The Kingfisher Book of Children's Poetry, selected by Michael Rosen (1985) includes Hoffmann's "Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb," albeit with a slightly less sinsiter illustration than the original. It also includes this more contemporary poem by Britain's Allan Ahlberg (of Peepo and Jolly Postman fame), which I find intriguing and refreshing, for there is a perverse pleasure in wondering about the unknown, isn't there?

The Cane

The teacher
had some thin springy sticks
for making kites.

Reminds me
of the old days, he said;
and swished one.

The children
near his desk laughed nervously,
and pushed closer.

A cheeky girl
held out her cheeky hand.
Go on, Sir!

said her friends.
Give her the stick, she’s always
playing up!

The teacher
paused, then did as he was told.
Just a tap.

Oh, Sir!
We’re going to tell on you,
the children said.

Other children
left their seats and crowded round
the teacher’s desk.

Other hands
went out. Making kites was soon

My turn next!
He’s had one go already!
That’s not fair!

Soon the teacher,
to save himself from the crush,
called a halt.

(It was
either that or use the cane
for real.)

the children did as they were told
and sat down.

If you behave
yourselves, the teacher said,
I’ll cane you later.

--Allan Ahlberg

(Note: when quoting poems online, always include a full citation for the collection from which the poem originated. If the poem is not in the public domain (i.e. is still in copyright) abide by the principle of Fair Dealing in your use of the work.)


Well, there you have it: 30 days of poetry collections all wrapped up. Ta-da! If any of you would like me to post all the collections I mentioned in a single post, let me know in the comments and I will put it up early in May. It never hurts to have a wallet-sized list to take to the library or to the book store.


  1. Thank you, such a treat. Yes to 30 days of poetry collection if it is not too much trouble.
    Very generous of you to compile and post all of this particularly with your trip happening in the middle of it. Thank you, thank you.


  2. I was caned and I wrote about it in 'You Wait Till I'm Older Than You (Puffin)

  3. Michael,
    It was the strap and not the cane at my school. It was banned when I was in Grade 6. I never "got the strap" (as we used to say) but I did see others get it.

  4. Thanks for doing this. I am ever so slightly disappointed not to find Ogden Nash in the mix (Custard the Dragon?), but I'll live. :)

  5. I remember a kid in my grade three class coming back from being strapped, because we had a principal who Loved To STrap Kids. Despite being really REALLY bad kids, though, we never did - my dad scared the principal. And weirdly enough, my kids LOVE hearing about this now - I wonder if that's the root of a lot of the old spanking poems?


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