He faces execution each day. Seven days a week, his jury of peers votes unanimously for capital punishment. The judge’s hand is typically stayed. Mercy reigns because the accused shows signs of improvement. Perhaps, this little boy will one day also become fully human. With him and his kind rests the fate of Western Civilization.
My son Willie’s peers are, as you may guess, his sisters (his younger brother bides his time and keeps a low profile). Willie’s offenses are many, but on one particular morning as the jury howled for blood, the naughty five-year old could be heard dressing himself and singing this little tune:
Old Mr. B! Old Mr. B! Hickamore, Hackamore, on the King’s Kitchen door; All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men, Couldn’t drive Hickamore, Hackamore, Off the King’s kitchen door.
Now some of you will recognize this as a riddling tune by Squirrel Nutkin. My son has not been made to memorize it. He has heard the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin a number of times, but it does not have the near liturgical status of a rather simple version of Chicken Little, whose current reading is now Vespers-like in its regularity. Somehow the songs of Squirrel Nutkin are in him now, perhaps because Nutkin’s are songs in which he can participate and understand his own nature.
Willie’s singing of “Old Mr. B!” was accompanied by a sort of twisting dance and chuckling laugher that suggested he saw something of himself in that furry agent provocateur, Squirrel Nutkin. If you do not have your own five-year old, let me assure you that you simply cannot mete out justice against a little fellow who knows such tunes and takes them so very seriously.
Civilization Starts in Wonder and Play
My son’s song reminded me of a letter that my wife read to me once. It was written by John Keats in 1818 to his little sister Fanny. Keats had been back-packing in northern England and Scotland. At the end of a long day hiking in Dumfries, during which Keats occasionally “scribbled” poems and thought for his sister, he trotted out the following lines—“a song about myself,” as he put it:
There was a naughty boy, A naughty boy was he, He would not stop at home, He could not quiet be- He took In his knapsack A book Full of vowels And a shirt With some towels— A slight cap For night cap— A hair brush, Comb ditto, New stockings For old ones Would split O! This knapsack Tight at’s back He rivetted close And followed his nose To the north, To the north, And follow’d his nose To the north. This playful tune rolls on through four parts and ends as follows:
There was a naughty boy, And a naughty boy was he, He ran away to Scotland The people for to see— There he found That the ground Was as hard, That a yard Was as long, That a song Was as merry, That a cherry Was as red, That lead Was as weighty, That fourscore Was as eighty, That a door Was as wooden As in England— So he stood in his shoes And he wonder’d, He wonder’d, He stood in his Shoes and he wonder’d. I find this poetic scribbling simple, beautiful, and wise. I also find it as wonderful as the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which Keats wrote the following year. Perhaps my judgment is shocking, but it is true. Would a complicated argument or ornate poem burst the conceit of vagabond cosmopolitanism as effectively as this naughty ditty?
The romantic notion of genius beguiles us. Too many of us think that something like the Odes of Keats (which are sublime in their perfection) are Divinity’s random appearance amongst men and have nothing to do with the specifics of culture or of an individual’s own mind, soul, upbringing, and conscious working out of talent.