You Never Can Tell With Bees…

When I prepared to spend the week at Mansfield College talking about Shakespeare in history, I hadn’t really thought too much about Edward Bear, also known as Winnie the Pooh.

I love Pooh. The A. A. Milne stories have been favorites of mine as a child, as a parent and as a teacher. Milne’s poetry is part of my earliest literary memories. Captain Kangaroo, the early morning children’s show, held us in place until it was time to go to school. Mom was already off to work, and the digital clock at the bottom of our black and white screen let us know when it was time to go. If the Captain said they would show the film to the song/poem, “Buckingham Palace” that morning, we always waited a few extra minutes and then put the extra hustle in our step to get to school on time   A soldier’s life is terrible hard…..says Alice.

So I was pleased that we were going to meet and hear speak in our tiny little conference David Benedictus, the author of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood – the authorized sequel to the Milne stories. In anticipating his reading and our meal with him, Dr. Elisabeth Dutton (our tutor/seminar leader) and I talked Poohsticks. Poohsticks is an easy game. Players stand on a bridge over any moving water, and in the upstream side they drop their sticks in the water and then run to the other side of the bridge to see whose emerges first. I love reading this story because it begins with a description of a little bit of moving water  that starts life with lots of energy in its youth at the source, but then as it grows up it becomes more calm and slips slowly down stream. The rhythm was great for achieving drowsy children. Eeyore is particularly snarky in this story, as he finds himself floating down the river and is mistaken for a Poohstick. Elisabeth and I also talked expotitions and crustomony proceedcakes.

Word Perfect

So I don’t know why I was surprised, I certainly was delighted, to discover at dinner the evening of Mr. Benedictus lecture and reading that Elisabeth and I clearly shared our literary childhoods. I said that Milne was some of the earliest poetry that I had memorized. And she said – “Oh wait, like…” and began reciting, perfectly –

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, “Bears,
Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”

And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”

Lines and Squares by A.A. Milne

So we traded poems. I began with James, James, Morrison, Morrision (Weatherby George Dupree) and she joined me.  She responded with “The King asked the Queen and the Queen asked the Dairymaid” and all  of our tablemates just stared at us. There were more poems.  Great fun, that!

As a teacher I love to use Milne because he masterfully moves between first, second, and third person as a storyteller. Here is the opening of Chapter 1 In Which We Are Introduced from Winnie the Pooh:

HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.

When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But I thought he was a boy?”

“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.

It begins in the third person – he, Winnie the Pooh bumping down the stairs – and then second person -you- emerges, but it’s not clear if it is you, the reader, or you, another character to be introduced – Christopher Robin. And we can’t say the NEXT character because the first person “I” appears and the narrator himself is a character. In the next sentence it becomes clear that the reader is ALSO in the story (the “you” from before).  And then we are back to third person, but with Christopher Robin calling himself “I.”  Complicated? Yes. Easy to understand? Totally! A complex narrative structure totally accessible that can help students develop the confidence to really engage in a close reading of any text.

So, Edward Bear – I salute you.

Footbridge Image by Brian Forbes

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Al says:

    Griffin had us read him the Pooh books every night for months and months and I never got tired of them. My favorite part is the chapters concerning Owl’s house and culminating in the heroic ode to Piglet which goes more or less like this:

    Did he tremble? Did he blinch?
    No, he squoze through inch by inch
    Through LETTERS ONLY, as I know
    Because I saw him go.

    Sing ho! for Piglet. Piglet, ho!

    The glory of this caused Piglet to give up his own house thus demonstrating the power of poetry.

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      Our standard response to the vagaries of girl children is, “You never can tell with bees.”
      Pooh’s hums have driven my children crazy through the years. I recite at odd intervals:
      Wouldn’t it be funny if bears were bees
      They’d build their nests at the bottom of trees
      And wouldn’t it be fine if bees were bears
      They wouldn’t have to climb up all these stairs

      Do you remember that Grandma T had those little yellow 45’s that had Cottleston Pie and Sing Ho! for the Life of a Bear that we played endlessly on the turntable in her dining room?
      Sing Ho! for poetry! Ho!

  2. Al says:

    Cottleston Pie….this seems vaguely familar but I’m not remembering any details. I wonder if there’s a time factor involved?

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      There is that time delay thing with us in Madison. You are just enough older that it made a difference When We Were Very Young (sorry)

      “Cottelston, Cottelson, Cottelston Pie
      A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly
      Ask me a riddle and I’ll reply
      Cottelston, Cottelson, Cottelston Pie

      [Tra la la](3X) rum tum tiddle um tum…etc”

      Sing Ho! For the Life of a Bear was the B Side (Bee Side?) if there can be such a thing. Predating the Disney Pooh considerably.

      1. Al says:

        Disney Pooh is the spawn of satan.

        see and Cooking with Pooh: Cookie Cutters Adventures

        1. Kate Tabor says:

          Spawn indeed. Fortunately we were spared this when the children were smaller.

  3. liz says:

    My kids never thrilled to the lyricism of Milne to the same degree we did. The Changing of Guard and James James were two and remain two favorite childhood poems because of their ability to tell a story and paint a picture. A Child’s Garden of Verses paled in comparison.

    Poetry, with the exception of Dr. Seuss, just didn’t jar their pickles.

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      Emily went in search of her favorite quote from House At Pooh Corner yesterday, from the Search for Small where Piglet leaps six inches in the air “in surprise and anxiety.” Made me laugh every time I read it.

      But Nick likes poetry now, I guessing.

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