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.
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