James Reeves and his Collected Poems for Children

Brian Alderson, compiler of Edward Ardizzone: A Bibliographic Commentary, here pays tribute to James Reeves, whose book of children's poems is embellished with Ardizzone's illustrations.

It is a melancholy fact that, in the thirty years since his death, James Reeves has become an almost forgotten figure. 'I am a fanatic for poetry' he said on one occasion and much of his working life was spent in writing poetry, in editing volumes which eventually gave us a companionable clew through the labyrinth of English verse, and in seeking to improve teachers' understanding of its riches and thus to find ways outside the dead conventions of the classroom to inspire children to a lifelong love of the art. He was a widely beneficent fanatic.

But the climate of British culture in the last decades of the twentieth century was inimical to his generous reading of 'the tradition'. It is unsurprising that, in 1962, the editors of the admirable Penguin Poets series asked him to compile the volume on Georgian Poetry, for, although too young to have been a 'Georgian' himself, and although properly critical of those 'regulars ... who produced periodical volumes of "recipe" poems' he was sympathetic to 'their accessibility to unsophisticated emotions'. He named poets such as Graves, Sassoon, Blunden and de la Mare as proferring to readers a different experience from the often tortured reflections and syntax of those who followed them, and he found in their best work 'the quality of magic' that he saw as being essential to the absorption of poetry.

Such a critical view though - itself open to charges of unsophistication - ran counter to both contemporary analytics and the looming complexities of Theory, while, at the same time, a school curriculum long deemed acceptable was being undermined by social, educational, and behavioural issues which would allow no place for the promulgation of anything so demanding of attention as close reading or getting to grips with The Canon.

Indeed, Reeves's much-reprinted manual of 1958, Teaching Poetry, now seems to have been devised for a dream-world, while no school library (if such things still exist) has available to it the treasures of the two dozen or more volumes of Heinemann's 'Poetry Bookshelf' of which Reeves was General Editor, compiling at least nine of the selections himself.

Even the two books in which his scholarly gifts are fully revealed and which have much to say to our present culture were allowed to go out of print: his editing, with substantial commentaries, of foundation texts for the study of English traditional verse, The Idiom of the People, taken from the mss. of Cecil Sharp (1958) and The Everlasting Circle, taken from the mss. of Sabine Baring-Gould, H. E. D. Hammond, and George B. Gardner (1960). It is thus a pleasure to record that these volumes have also taken their place in the Faber Finds series.

Reeves's own poetry, the first volume of which, The Natural Need, was published in 1935 by Robert Graves's Seizin Press in Majorca, could certainly be labelled as 'post-Georgian'. He has a sure command of speech rhythms, whether working in free forms (he compiled a school anthology of free verse) or formal stanzas and these are mostly applied to lyric moments, such as "Bottom's Dream":

His hands across the threads move absently
Beneath the foolish radiance of his face.
The rational Athenians look askance
At the old weaver in the market place.

How could he make them credit what he saw,
Or dreamed, by moonshine in the woodland green,
When in his youthful, mad, midsummer time
He lay all night beside the fairy queen?

And there were longer meditations, such as "To You Who Came With Me", or brief narratives such as “The Disinherited" which may owe much to his love of the ballad tradition. There is a consistency of expression over the whole span of these poems which suggests great care on the author's part not to publish anything with which he was not wholly satisfied, but it is a quiet, not to say unambitious, consistency - no "recipes" in sight, but a body of work that would give pause to anyone seeking to select something magical for an anthology of post-Georgian poetry.

Such a problem would hardly beset (or, rather, has not beset) anthologists of children's poetry who are simply spoiled for choice by what he has to offer in that genre. For, in parallel with the six books of his poetry for adult readers, Reeves composed a succession of collections of verses for young children, intended, as often as not, to be spoken or even chanted as well as merely read. (He was a great proponent of spoken poetry and his ear for "the ring of words" is evident throughout the Complete Poems.)

Almost all his virtues are on display in his first book, The Wandering Moon, which was published in 1950 with illustrations by Evadne Rowan (later to be re-illustrated by his comrade-in-arms, Edward Ardizzone). Here there are comic, or sometimes touching, character portraits:

Dr John Hearty,
Though old as a fossil,
Could dance like a fairy
And sing like a throstle ...

There are records of astonishing or mysterious incidents (see Queer Things); there are echoes of past times:

For a farthing and a penny you cannot buy much,
You cannot buy a parrot or rabbits in a hutch ...

There are Stevensonian verses of child's play, cast in the child's own voice:

The grasses nod together
In the field where I play ...

and these link through to evocations of nature such as the book's title poem or - one of his most-anthologized pieces - "The Sea":

The sea is a hungry dog,
Giant and grey.
He rolls on the beach all day ...

The Wandering Moon was followed in 1952 by what to the present writer is one of the most perfect children's books of the twentieth century: The Blackbird in the Lilac. The poems are very much in the mould of those in the previous book, now given a loose thematic arrangement. But the profound attractions of Reeves's writing have been enhanced through the line drawings of Edward Ardizzone which form an almost rhythmical accompaniment to the poems and give the book a haunting beauty.

It is easy to see the work as being almost a twin to Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie, which Ardizzone had illustrated for Faber in 1946, for Reeves is clearly influenced by that Georgian poet (!) in many of the pieces in both his collections, and the matching voices cannot help but evoke a similar response from the illustrator. But Reeves is his own man, no mere copyist, and the comedies and the plangent rhymes of The Blackbird are all his own. (Interestingly, he incorporates, as "The Statue", a child's view of a local monument which attracts quite different observations as "The Stone Gentleman" in his 1952 volume for adults, The Password.)

The changing circumstances in which generations of British children have found themselves between 1952 and the present have led today's mentors, in their grand quest for inclusiveness and "relevance", to question the value of what seem to be such backward-looking, nostalgia-seeking pastorals. "The Street" is seen to be the locus through which poetic experience must be channelled, with a representation of the child's argot and the urban experience that confronts her/him being endorsed as a more reliable (or truthful?) measure of poetic success.

It is possible that James Reeves would have appreciated the point, since among the fundamentals of his compositions for children is a respect for the sung and spoken word in "the idiom of the people". His relish for and work on nursery rhymes and on the ballad tradition might well have led him to a recognition of urban rhymes and rap as a legitimate modern poetic discourse.

At the same time though he might well himself have questioned the ephemerality of such socially controlled modes of expression and seen in the apparently so much tamer rhymes of The Wandering Moon and The Blackbird in the Lilac a connection to fundamental emotional responses to the human and the natural condition.

Whatever opinions may be held on the historic legitimacy and hence continuing relevance of these collections, common ground must surely be found in an appreciation of the two major collections that followed The Blackbird in the Lilac: the two volumes devoted to the taxonomy of the Prefabulous Animiles. These jeux d'esprit stand out as Reeves's most original contribution to children's verse, his own genius blending into our awareness of like comedies by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Dr Seuss.

The project might appear to be limited by the range of absurdity open to the inventor, but Reeves sustains the comedy over no fewer than two dozen wildly varied specimens, each wonderfully matched by Ardizzone's drawings. Nothing truer was said of this almost fraternal collaboration than Reeves's own words to his illustrator's wife: '... we hit it off and are admired as a team". (That can also be seen in the many prose narratives that they worked on together: story collections with pendrawn vignettes, such as Pigeons and Princesses (1956), single story picture books in colour, such as Titus in Trouble (1959), or various presentations of folk tales, often drawn from the Grimm collections. Outstanding among these - but illustrated by Charles Keeping (something of a bête noire to Diz) - was his novelization of the Grimms' Blue Lamp as The Cold Flame (1967).

Such are the roller-coaster economics of book publishing that the discrete volumes in which Reeves's poems for children were originally printed could not be individually sustained. Material went in and out of print until in 1973 Messrs Heinemann essayed a Complete Poems for Children which included all the verse in The Wandering Moon, The Blackbird in the Lilac, and Prefabulous Animiles together with two
lesser volumes and a substantial quantity of Ardizzone's indispensable pictures (The Blackbird in the Lilac suffered the most grievous losses with twenty-five of his illustrations being dropped).

In 1994 an augmented reprint was published, still lacking the missing illustrations but now including More Prefabulous Animiles and some previously uncollected verses. It is this volume which is now reprinted under the Faber Finds imprint, allowing James Reeves's voice to sound for a new generation.

James Reeves, originally John Morris Reeves, was born in London on 1 July 1909. He was educated at Stowe and at Cambridge University and became first a teacher and then a teacher of teachers. In 1952 he left the profession to become a freelance writer and editor and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1976. He died on 1 May 1978.

Brian Alderson is the compiler of Edward Ardizzone: a Bibliographic Commentary (2003).