I’ve been thinking about didactic poetry. To be honest, I don’t even know if this is an official category, but it seems to me that a lot of poetry teaches you something, or is intended to have a moral lesson. One of my favourites is Carolyn Wells’ How To Tell Wild Animals. The second verse goes thus:
Or if some time when roaming round,
A noble wild beast greets you,
With black stripes on a yellow ground,
Just notice if he eats you.
This simple rule may help you learn
The Bengal Tiger to discern.
That one’s fairly light and humorous, although the verses mostly deal with being able to identify wild animals by the way they kill you. On the moral lesson side is Struwwelpeter,
which was written in 1844 by Heinrich Hoffman. Hoffman wanted to give his three-year-old son a book for Christmas but couldn’t find a suitable one, so he wrote and illustrated a picture book himself. It contains ten cautionary tales.
Here’s an excerpt from The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches.
And see! oh, what dreadful thing!
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair—
She burns all over everywhere.
Then how the pussy-cats did mew—
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help, ’twas all in vain!
So then they said: “We’ll scream again;
Make haste, make haste, me-ow, me-o,
She’ll burn to death; we told her so.”
Friends who saw the book urged him to have it published so other children could also enjoy it, which really says something about parenting in 19th-century Germany. I first encountered this book in the home of a classmate whose parents came from Germany. I must have been seven or so. I don’t remember it giving me nightmares, so maybe Hoffman was on to something after all. It’s certainly worth a read, just for the quaint language and the pictures.
And, of course, there are all the little didactic bits and bobs of verse that we know, but don’t remember we know. These are things like weather lore: “Rain before seven, shine by eleven” or “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”. What about “I before E except after C, or when used as A, as in neighbour and weigh”? Or “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking”? Another one I’ve used for years is “A pint’s a pound the world around”, which tells you that two cups of flour or sugar is about a pound.
And, of course, “Thirty days hath September…”
Now most of these are mnemonics for me, but at one time, when I didn’t know how many days there were in each month, that little rhyme helped me learn and remember it. Now I wonder how many of these little didactic poems I have in my head, and I’m going to start keeping track of them. Maybe I’ll make a little book. Feel free to send in anything you think of, and I’ll include it.
excerpt and picture from Struwwelpeter through the Gutenberg Project.