The Library of the Nursery

A GLANCE at recent publishing announcements shows that a great many children’s books of the more modern and artistic type are being issued and re-issued. Edward Lear, one of the most thoroughly original men of the nineteenth century, as original in his own way as Darwin or Carlyle, and all the imitators of Edward Lear, whose name is legion, are apparently planning a new invasion of the nursery. A vast and very honourable revolution is expressed in the fact that there are a fair number of modern places of residence in which the nursery is the best place in the house. It represents a very genuine and self-sacrificing ideal of the aesthetic education of children. To the majority of our ancestors the sacrifice of a large and artistic room to infancy would have appeared outrageous. It would have seemed like making the dog-kennel bigger than the house, or giving the cow the unrestricted use of the drawing-room. While minds more strenuous than our own are discussing whether the world is growing better or worse, it cannot be amiss to point that this age has really invented this great artistic sacrifice to children, this costly loan to posterity, who is the most bankrupt of all debtors. The moral credit of this act is not affected even if we choose to think that it is a mistake to place really ingenious poetry and really decorative art before infants. It may possibly be true that subtle aesthetics are unsuited to the simple mind. It may be that when we present Walter Crane’s illustrations in a nursery book we are acting like a person who should put a very abstruse selection from Wagner into a baby’s musical box. It may be that a child can no more realise the best art than he can realise the best algebra. We do not think ourselves that he is at all inferior in this particular. But even if he is, the toil undertaken for the literary education of children remains equally stirring and reassuring to all who are discussing the moral development of humanity. It is the latest movement of the religious instinct, which is the instinct of trust.

Before the throne of the modern child the best treasures of art and literature are unrolled: the worship of the Child (an essential part of the Christian religious art) is carried in these days even further than it was carried by the most careful by the most careful colour and gold-leaf of the medieval craftsman. No sacrifices are spared and no reward is demanded. The offerings made to the Pagan gods, who were the personifications of power, fall short of the prodigality and richness of the offerings made to this god, who is the personification of impotence. None of the old literary patrons who could drive a poet into beggary or put his fingers into the treasury of the king is so well treated as this new patron, who can neither smite nor reward, whose vengeance consists in throwing a brick and his gratitude in offering, in a somewhat hesitating manner, a portion of a partly consumed chocolate.

In honour of the child the nineteenth century has made one real discovery, the discovery of what are called Nonsense Books. They are so entirely the creation of our time that we ought to value them like electricity or compulsory education. They constitute an entirely new discovery in literature, the discovery that incongruity itself may constitute harmony, that as there is a beauty in the wings of a bird because they evoke aspiration, so also there may be beauty in the wings of a rhinoceros because they evoke laughter. Lewis Carroll is great in his lyric insanity. Mr. Edward Lear is, to our mind, even greater. But it is only fair to say that this invention may be criticized in its educational aspect. We must avoid, above all things, confusing those aspects of childhood which are pleasing to children with those which are pleasing to us.

The great literature of Nonsense has enormous value, but it may at least be reasonably maintained that this value exists chiefly for grown-up people. Nonsense is a thing of Meredithian subtlety. It is not children who should read the words of Lewis Carroll; they are far better employed making mud pies; it is rather sages and grey-haired philosophers who ought to sit up all night reading Alice in Wonderland in order to study that darkest problem of metaphysics, the borderland between reason and unreason, and the nature of the most erratic spiritual forces, humour which eternally dances between the two. That we do find a pleasure in certain long and elaborate stories, in certain complicated and curious forms of diction, which have no intelligible meaning whatever, is not a subject for children to play with; it is a subject for psychologists to go mad over. It is we mature persons, with our taste for something lawless, who invented nonsense. We indulged ourselves in Jabberwocky and the Young Bongo Bo as we indulged ourselves in spiritualism and the Celtic fairy tales, because we had an everlasting impatience with our own humdrum earth. But the child is in an immeasurably finer position. To him the earth is not humdrum; for him there is no need of books. The element of the wild and the poetic which is stirred in us by the Dong with the Luminous Nose is stirred in him by any ordinary uncle. It is not necessary to the child to awaken the sense of the strange and humorous by giving a man a luminous nose. To the child (type of the true philosopher, who is not yet born) it is sufficiently strange and humorous to have a nose at all.

If any one of use casts back his mind to his childhood, he will remember that the sense of the supernatural clung as often as not round some entirely trivial and material object, round a particular landing on the stairs, round a particular tree in the park, round a way of cutting cardboard or the hair of a Japanese doll. The child has no need of nonsense: to him the whole universe is nonsensical, in the noblest sense of that noble word. A tree is something top-heavy and fantastic, a donkey is as exciting as a dragon. All objects are seen through a great magnifying glass; the daisy in the meadow is as large as a tree of the Hesperides, and the pebbles littered about a puddle will serve for the Islands of the Blest. A child has numerous points of inferiority to ourselves; he has no sense of experience, of self-possession; above all he has no knowledge of deep emotion, no knowledge of those great pains which make life worth living. But he has one real point of superiority. We are going forth continually to discover new aesthetic worlds, and last of all our conquests we have discovered this world of nonsense.

This amounts to only a one-sided view, but it is a view which may demand to be stated, if only in justice to the old-fashioned writers for children, who are often denounced in our day. Their moralising is sometimes nauseous, but after all it is grown-up people whom it nauseates. Off children the morality ran like water off a duck’s back. What children enjoyed about the old moral tales was that they were realistic tales, and that the authors were, like children, realists, people who were really interested in the phenomena of this world. All readers of the tales of Miss Edgeworth (to take an excellent example) will remember an admirable story about a little girl who wished to possess the vases of coloured liquid which are exhibited in the front of a chemist’s shop. The moral to that of the story: he learnt to dream of the vases, to exult in the glory of the primal colours. The didactic pessimism of the old-fashioned ethics did not touch the matter; the essential of the matter was that Miss Edgeworth had grasped a glowing fragment of poetry which was missed by Keats and Browning, the fascination of those monstrous and coloured moons which proclaim for yards down the street the mystery of the home of healing.

~G.K. Chesterton: in Lunacy & Letters