Thursday, December 29, 2016

Then There Were Three by Eleanor Farjeon; illustrated by Isobel and John Morton-Sale (1965)

In the Methodist hymnal,  I found a hymn this Advent season with lyrics by Eleanor Farjeon, whom I knew as a poet for children ( I read a clever book of poems about each British monarch, which I liked immensely).  In all my Christmases, I had never noticed this hymn before, and after listening to it, really enjoyed it.  There is some history of the hymn here.  It's a great hymn to sing, and a great poem to read, after Thanksgiving but before Christmas really begins - during the "O Come O Come Emmanuel" time of year, when, as Farjeon writes, we make our house fair, trim the hearth and set the table.

I went searching for and found a book of Farjeon's poetry.  It's actually three books in one  - Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush and The Starry Floor - and they were all published as children's picture books and illustrated by the Morton-Sales (Isobel and Eleanor were besties) during the 1940s (both during and after the war).

Cherrystones I didn't care for at all; it was all about marriage and weddings, from little girls' points of view, elegant and poetic takes on nursery rhymes dealing with love and marriage; not really my cup of tea.    The Mulberry Bush had a similar conceit, only Farjeon expands on other types of nursery rhymes; I liked this one better than the Cherrystone section.  My favorite section was The Starry Floor, which were all poems about stars, planets, and the heavens, but not in a scientific way - rather, mythology plays a definite part (as it well should, since most stars and constellations names in English are from Greek and Roman mythology.

Something that occurred to me about when they were written and published:  Cherrystones, about love and marriage, was published in 1942, but probably written during the middle of the worst of the Blitz; I imagine Farjeon was trying to give little girls and the rest of England, everyday facing death, some hope for the future; life was going to eventually go on, with happily ever after weddings to come.  The Mulberry Bush, about nursery rhymes and games, was written towards the end of the war, when children were starting to feel safer and could play and be kids again.  And The Starry Floor, written after the war, told children is was okay to dream and fantasize again.

I chose two poems that I liked the best, "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and "The Zodiac."

"Mulberry" I liked because it has a haunting quality, in a nostalgic way, yes, but also in a slightly more portentous way.  It's a much deeper poem than you would suspect on your initial read:  about childhood, and adulthood, about generations, about sunrises and sunsets, about the permanence of poetry in our lives, and maybe how that is disappearing - because how many kids would know this song now? "Singing words all children know" but I suspect many no longer do.  That idea that children grow, but childhood remains, which is a sweet thought, and a little sad.

"The Zodiac" I liked for the play on words and the descriptions that Farjeon comes up with.  I thought it was a clever and witty poem.  I'm "the man who waters the starry track" and I live with "the archer who shoots with a twinkling string."

Then There Were Three: Being Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush, The Starry FloorThen There Were Three: Being Cherrystones, The Mulberry Bush, The Starry Floor by Eleanor Farjeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is actually three books of Farjeon's poems in one volume (Cherrystones, 1942; The Mulberry Bush, 1945; and my favorite of the three, The Starry Floor, 1949), all illustrated by Isobel and John Morton-Sale (Farjeon and Isobel Morton-Sale were very good friends). I was not a fan of Cherrystones, which seemed to be predominantly Farjeon's elegant and poetic whimsy on the nursery rhymes and games associated with love and marriage, from little girls' points of view of the first part of the 20th century. If I had to pick a favorite poem from this section, there is a quite good one about Cinderella, told from the pumpkin's point of view, called "Coach." The Mulberry Bush I liked slightly better; it comes from the same conceit of nursery rhymes and games, although Farjeon broadens it to include many famous, and some no longer famous, games that children play. The poem "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" was my favorite in this section, a haunting and beautiful take on the famous song and game. My favorite though was The Starry Floor; this contained poems about stars, planets, comets - but not from a scientific point of view, but rather a classical romantic, mythological point of view. The poem "The Zodiac" was my favorite here, for Farjeon's clever use of language and description; but all of these were quite good.

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