When my youngest son was about five, he fell giddily in love with a Shakespeare comedy he had found on a BBC TV program. He was truly delighted by the pageantry, the slapstick, costumes, music and general air of festivity. He wanted more. And so, when students at the university where I was teaching put on a production of Macbeth, my wife and I, carefully explaining that this tragedy would be pretty different from the highjinks he had so loved, asked him if he would like to go. He was emphatic, and he loved the show. Asked, when we got home, what most impressed him, he said that there were some lines that delighted him: "Double, double, toilet trouble." This pleased me because a) it is true, b) it has the strange charm with which children, failing to comprehend some adult locution, recast it in terms of their own (as a child I believed there was somewhere a country called "Tissovthee" which, a song claimed, was mine), but c) chiefly because it reminded me of what elements in poetry first appealed to me.
A child's emotional life is enormously powerful but narrowly and imprecisely focused. Fear may be among its chief ingredients, and as for love, it is too strongly fused with dependence and anxiety to be anything like the mature feelings we commonly think of. And the poems that first resonated for me, I now remembered, were those nursery rhymes that were rhythmically compelling because, exactly like the witches' rhyme in Macbeth, they were spells, incantations, forms of magic. Such, for example, was one that went:
Hinx, minx, the old witch winks,
The fat begins to fry,
Nobody home but jumping Joan,
Father, mother and I.
Stick, stock, stone dead,
Blind man can't see;
Every knave will have a slave,
You or I must be he.
Like many such children's rhymes, this was a riddle, and all the better for being impenetrable. Mother Goose was full of such fine, insoluble puzzles. When I went to school I didn't much care for any of the poetry I was made to read. When it was not devoted to "boring" description, it was a contrivance that required a specific, predetermined emotional response. And such responses seemed like all the other values imposed upon me by the adult world, which I profoundly distrusted. But it wasn't long before I found what later my son was to discover in the convocation of Shakesperean witches: poems that dwelt in the realm of the marvelous and the uncanny, for which there was no prescribed response. I found them in the poems for children by Walter de la Mare, for example in this:
Who said, 'Peacock Pie'?
The old king to the sparrow:
Who said, 'Crops are ripe'?
Rust to the harrow:
Who said, 'Where sleeps she now'?
Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve's loveliness?--
That's what I said.
And it was not long before I found this same eerie, spellbinding quality in other places, such as John Donne's
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
And who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
And to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
And again in Thomas Campion's
Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air,
Thrice sit thou mute in this
Then thrice three times tie up this
true love's knot,
And murmur soft, She will, or,
She will not.
Go burn these pois'nous weeds
in yon blue fire,
These screech-owl's feathers
and this prickling brier,
This cypress gathered at a
dead man's grave,
That all thy fears and cares
an end may have.
Eventually I was to find this kind of spell sustained weirdly and excitingly in such a poem as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," with its marvelous ending,
....with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
--Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 1998.