So he wrote the first of stories with his little fingernail’
Nathalia Crane was nine years old when, in 1924, she wrote ‘The First Story’ and many other poems, published in a collection called The Janitor’s Boy. She was one of many child poets in the 1920s, which saw a spate of precocious poetry and prose in the UK and the US. In the 19th century already, a cult of poetic precocity in children had erupted with the rediscovered works of Marjory (/Marjorie) Fleming, a little Scottish girl who wrote everyday from the age of six and conveniently died before she was nine, in 1811 - embodying forever the vision of glorious, pure and doomed childhood genius for the Victorians (this is a great article on the subject).
|a rather haunting sketch of Marjorie Fleming by (?)Isa Keith|
I’m currently looking at those works by child poets and at the adult discourse which developed around them, and it’s fascinating to see the extent to which such works were simply not allowed to be on their own: they were relentlessly explained, explored, excused, by the adults who read, published and critiqued them (another great article).
We get, of course, the usual amount of ‘how cute they are!’, and the associated Romantic claims that they were ‘close to nature’, ‘close to God’, ‘close to universal truth’. Not coincidentally, references to classics of children’s literature recur when critics analyse those poems: they talk of Alice in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling, and James Matthew Barrie prefaced a novel by nine-year-old Daisy Ashford. This was around the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature, at a time when children and childhood already had cult status; the verbal abilities of the precocious poets gave hope that their word might be interpreted, and ‘teach’ adults about the beyondness to which childhood supposedly had access.
But those poets were also thought of as dramatically unstructured and lacking technical skill. In 1926, an academic reviews ‘some child poets’ and gives Marjorie Fleming the kind of review anyone would cringe to see written about oneself:
‘An affectionate little soul, with a real joy in nature, and a strangely precocious taste for books, she found her surroundings prosy, though her heart expressed itself in bursts of pitifully inadequate song.’
He goes on to expose Marjorie Fleming’s ‘limitations’ by indicating that she often invents words to make up for a lack of rime (heaven forbid!) and:
‘Another shift which she found useful was the introduction of a purely irrelevant line:At supper when his brother satI have not got a rhyme for that.’
Purely irrelevant indeed. Thankfully, George Shelton Hubbell reassures us that young Shelley was also a ‘juvenile blunderer’ in matters of poetry.
A strong concern of much of the general audience at the time was whether the children were actually writing those poems, or if adults were sneakily doing so. A passionate correspondence developed in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1919, concerning little Hilda Conkling, who dictated poems to her mother:
‘Dear Poetry: Could you not give your readers more explicit information as to just how those poems of Hilda Conkling’s are done: To what extent does her mother select, rearrange and give form? Is it all actually improvised as given?… What a delightful little genius!… (E. Sapir.)’‘I do not change words in Hilda’s poems,’ replied her mother, ‘nor alter her word-order; I write down the lines as rhythm dictates. She has made many poems which I have had to lose because I could not be certain of accurate transcription.’
The ‘accurate transcription’ of childly thoughts, the ‘authenticity’ of the child’s poetry needed to be ascertained at all costs, to the extent that Nathalia Crane, perhaps the most controversial of all child poets, was asked to produce a poem in the same room as a journalist.
Nathalia Crane was quite unique in that her poetry got published in a newspaper without the editor’s knowledge that it was a child’s. The editor, Edmund Leamy, wrote an afterword to her collection, in 1924, in which he talked about his astonishment when he discovered the ‘imposture’:
My surprise is excusable. So many times I had received “poems” from youngsters who were careful to give their ages in addition to their names; so often I had received visits from doting parents or relatives requesting publication of verses by their children or sisters or cousins that I never dreamed any child would ever submit any work from his or her pen without adding the words “Aged — years”. But little Nathalia was the exception — and there was nothing in her poems that I received to indicate her age. The poems bought were accepted on their merits and on their merits alone.
‘On their merits alone’, with no ‘child-loving’ bias (to quote Kincaid’s famous study); this was, therefore, proper poetry. Yet it made adults feel relentlessly uncomfortable. Her poetry was more structured, more sexualised and more aware of the constraints of the adult world than other child poets, and adults didn’t know how to tackle it. Louis Untermeyer, in 1936, prefacing Crane’s new collection ‘Swear by the night’ (she was 22 by then), talks about the uncanny feeling he had when the poet was a little girl:
‘She was ten and a half years old and she puzzled me. She puzzled me as a person even before she puzzled me as a poet. … There was even then a queerness about her, an almost too pronounced childishness coupled with a curious vocabulary.’
The blending of categories is always troublesome, the difficulty to draw lines between adulthood and childhood always a problem. Adults then, but still now, find it difficult to make sense of moments when the presence to the world of children is felt literally, fully, rather than wrapped in layers of symbols.
Nathalia Crane died in 1998 and I’ll leave you with one of her early poems, because it’s fair, after contributing myself to obscuring the works of those child poets with my own, to let her have the last words. I think the work might still be under copyright, so I'll only put the first stanza here; click to redirect to her collection on the Internet Archive.
Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.