by Eugene Field (1850-1895)
A Boston gentleman declares,
By all the gods above, below,
That our degenerate sons and heirs
Must let their Greek and Latin go!
Forbid, O Fate, we loud implore,
A dispensation harsh as that;
What! wipe away the sweets of yore;
The dear "Amo, amas, amat"?
The sweetest hour the student knows
Is not when poring over French,
Or twisted in Teutonic throes,
Upon a hard collegiate bench;
'T is when on roots and kais* and gars**
He feeds his soul and feels it glow,
Or when his mind transcends the stars
With "Zoa mou, sas agapo"!***
So give our bright, ambitious boys
An inkling of these pleasures, too —
A little smattering of the joys
Their dead and buried fathers knew;
And let them sing — while glorying that
Their sires so sang, long years ago —
The songs "Amo, amas, amat,"
And "Zoa mou, sas agapo"!
* "ands", in Greek
** "fors", in Greek
*** More Greek (the refrain from Lord Byron's poem Maid of Athens, "Zoë mou, sas agapo", or, "My life, I love you")
* * * *
Known during his brief lifetime as "the children's poet", Eugene Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850, the son of lawyer Roswell Martin Field and Frances Reed Field; Roswell M. Field defended the fugitive slave Dred Scott in the first trial of 1853. When Mrs. Field died three years later, Eugene and his brother, Roswell Jr., were sent to Amherst, Massachusetts, to be raised by a cousin and a paternal aunt; of his upbringing there, Field wrote, "It is almost impossible for a man to get rid of his Puritan grandfathers and nobody who has ever had one has ever escaped his Puritan grandmother." According to his teachers, Eugene was an intelligent boy but more fond of pranks and practical jokes than studying. However, after Eugene's death, his brother Roswell recalled,
It is in no sense depreciatory of my brother’s attainments in life to say that he gave no evidence of precocity in his studies in childhood. On the contrary he was somewhat slow in development, though this was due not so much to a lack of natural ability — he learned easily and quickly when so disposed — as to a fondness for the hundred diversions which occupy a wide-awake boy’s time.and
For a few years my brother attended a private school for boys in Amherst; then, at the age of fourteen, he was entrusted to the care of Rev. James Tufts, of Monson, one of those noble instructors of the blessed old school who are passing away from the arena of education in America. By Mr. Tufts he was fitted for college, and from the enthusiasm of this old scholar he caught perhaps the inspiration for the love of the classics which he carried through life. In the fall of 1868 he entered Williams College — the choice was largely accidental — and remained there one yearuntil the death of their father. Eugene moved to Illinois to attend Knox College, where the college's Children's and Young Adult Literature magazine is named Wynken, Blynken and Nod in Field's honor; according to the magazine's website, "His independent, free-spirited personality was apparently too much for the conservative college of the 19th century and he left without completing a degree" after one year. Brother Roswell agreed, writing about "the restlessness which was so characteristic of him in youth." Eugene Field transferred for the final time, also without graduating, to the University of Missouri. After dabbling a bit in acting and the law, he proposed marriage to fourteen-year-old Julia Sutherland Comstock and embarked on a tour of Europe during which he spent his entire $8,000 inheritance from his father; as he told friends upon his return, "I spent six months and my patrimony in France, Italy, Ireland, and England."
In 1873, he joined the staff of The St. Louis Journal as a reporter and married Miss Comstock, with whom he would have a happy union and eight children. He moved on, as writer and editor, to The St. Joseph Gazette (Missouri), followed by The Kansas City Times and The Denver Tribune. In 1883, he was enticed to join The Chicago Daily News with the promise of writing "exactly what I please on any subject I please", which turned into his column "Sharps and Flats" (1883-95). Indeed, Field is considered the first newspaper columnist, and one of the most successful.
Eugene Field's column, along with books such as A Little Book of Western Verse (1889) and Love Songs of Childhood (1894), brought him national fame. In 1892, he and his brother, a journalist and critic, collaborated on a translation from the works of the poet Horace, Echoes from the Sabine Farm (the nickname of Eugene's Chicago house). Field's love of the classics and sense of humor led him to write some verses that were most certainly not for children, including "The Truth about Horace".
Field was further celebrated, and remains known today, for his whimsical children's verse, including the poems "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod", "The Ride to Bumpville", "The Duel", "The Sugar Plum Tree", and "Little Boy Blue". His works for children came out of his fervent belief that the young imagination should be encouraged with fancy and make-believe, and according to all reports Field was an indulgent husband and father, and his home and family life were remarkably happy.
Eugene Field died in his sleep of heart failure in 1895, at the age of 45. In 1902, Mark Twain dedicated a plaque marking the St. Louis, Missouri, house in which Field was born; earlier this year the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1922, a bronze statue in Eugene Field's memory was erected in Lincoln Park, Chicago, of a winged fairy and two sleeping children (inspired by Field's poem "The Rock-a-By Lady". The statue, by American sculptor Edward McCartan, was raised with the help of children in Chicago and across the country.
More of Eugene Field's poetry can be found online here.
Gina at AmoxCalli has today's Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, Gina! Speaking of classics, don't forget that AmoxCalli has the feature, "Reviewing the Classics of Children's Literature" -- good stuff!