Over the weekend I got to wrestle on the living room floor with my two-year-old grandson Alban. As I did so, I flashed on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Children’s Hour.”
This 1863 lyric was a popular favorite for decades, one of those poems that children were regularly required to memorize. I encountered it first when my father read it to me as a child, and my second encounter was when I saw Don Martin’s Mad Magazine spoof of it. Martin, of course, took shots at its sentimentality.
But Mad wasn’t the first publication to question “The Children’s Hour.” Lillian Hellman in 1934 played off against the poem by using its title for her own play about a disaffected girl in a boarding school. In order to avoid being sent back to the school, she accuses two of her teachers of having a lesbian love affair, thereby destroying their lives. In other words, so much for the innocence of little girls.
The problem with oversentimentalizing children is that it doesn’t do justice to their full personhood. When one has rigid expectations of what innocence is supposed to look like, one doesn’t give children room to breathe. I get a sense of suffocation when the narrator of Longfellow’s poem talks of trapping his three daughters, even though the trap is “the round tower of my heart”? That image, it is worth noting, follows up a genuinely disturbing image of Bishop Hatto being eaten alive by the mice that invaded the tower where he was hoarding grain from the starving peasants. I wonder if some part of Longfellow doesn’t feel nervous about how vulnerable children make him feel.
But that being said, I felt no cynical distance when I was wrestling with Alban. Instead, “The Children’s Hour” affected me as Longfellow no doubt intended. I was totally sentimental. Here’s the poem:
The Children’s Hour
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!
One other thought: We had a party for two-year-olds yesterday afternoon and I recalled another association I had for “the children’s hour” when my own were small. Successful though the party was, at around 5 all the children began to get tired and to melt down. Each parent there recognized the signs.
Julia and I used to call this “the arsenic hour” although I can’t remember why. Maybe it was because our children seemed poisonous to us at those moments. Or maybe it was because we thought that only arsenic would quiet them. At these moments, sentimental poems about children seem a mockery and one resorts to gallows humor to survive.
I once hypothesized that child cuteness, starting with those large eyes, is a biological defense mechanism to protect children from the parents who they are preventing from sleeping and who are crazed with fatigue.
Of course, the nice thing about being a grandparent is that you get to pass the child back to the parents when he or she starts acting up. You can wrestle with them to your heart’s content. Someone else gets up in the middle of the night.