Monday, September 23, 2013

One Hundred and One Famous Poems

"Preface: This is the age of science, of steel--of speed and the cement road, The age of hard faces and hard highways. Science and steel demand a medium of prose. Speed requires only the look--the gesture. What need then, for poetry?  
Great need!"
The summer I turned eleven my family moved from Tonawanda, NY to Michigan. For several months we lived with my grandparents while my folks looked for a new house. All my possessions, save for my Barbie dolls, were in boxes in my grandparents' garage. I was a great reader and perused my grandfather's books for something to read. I found One Hundred and One Famous Poems and read it so often that my grandfather gave it to me.
My grandfather's bookplate

The poems entertained me, taught me to love language, and extolled traditional American values of home, country, initiative, and community. I learned history. I learned about experiences very unlike my own.

My earliest favorite was Eugene Field's The Duel. Otherwise known by its protagonists, the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, who "side by side on the table sat." They started a fight that upset the Dutch Clock and the Chinese plate. Next morning there was no trace of dog or cat. "The truth about the cat and pup is this: they ate each other up!"

Now, if that does not warn against the horrible end of those who engage in senseless fights! (find the poem at

The Spider and The Fly by Mary Howitt is a warning to beware falling victim to flattery. The spider entices a fly into "the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy" with "fine and thin sheets." When that does not work, the spider talks about the fly's 'robes of green and purple and eyes like the diamond bright.' She finally is seduced and enters...never to be seen again. The dear children are then warned to take a lesson and "unto an evil counselor close heart, and ear, and eye."

I loved the story poems. Especially Alfred Noye's The Highwayman, a romantic tale of the robber who loves Bess, the landlords' dark-eyed daughter. When the Redcoats tie Bess up and wait for the highwayman to return to her, she warns him by fingering the rifle trigger, sacrificing her own life. I adored the language of the poem: "The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,/the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor."

The language of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven was also gorgeous. "It was in the bleak December, and each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor". "And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain /Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before." I soon discovered a complete set of Poe on my grandfather's shelves, and ended up taking them home permanently as well.
Edgar Allan Poe quilt by Nancy A. Bekofske
I suffered terrible nostalgia and homesickness for over two years after our move. Out To Old Aunt Mary's by James Whitcomb Riley allowed me to indulge my own fond remembrances of a childhood home so recently lost. He spoke of willow trees, which had surrounded my own home.
my old home with the willow tree

Little Boy Blue by Eugene Field describes the vacant chair and waiting toys of the absent boy, who I did not realize was dead when I first read it; I thought he had grown up as I was growing up--quite against my wishes. The poem's sweet nostalgia transported me to my own future. And John Greenleaf Whittier's Barefoot Boy speaks of the lost freedom of childhood, lost to the "mills of toil."

And the volume warned about the adult responsibilities and horrors that awaited.

Like War. Did the Light Brigade also  have a 'rendezvous with death' when they charged forward? Was their death gentle, as Alan Seeger wrote? This was a world of poppies in Flanders' fields, and of grass-covered graves in Gettysburg so that people asked "what place is this" and did not remember the violence it had seen.

The suffering of the poor in Thomas Hood's Song of the Shirt, "with fingers weary and worn" a women in rags sewed "in poverty, hunger, and dirt." "It is not linen you're wearing bout,/But human creature's lives!"
And immediately follows Shakespeare's "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven."

What is our purpose on earth? Abou Ben Adhem asks the Angle if his name was in the book of those who loved the Lord and was told, "Nay, not so." He asks to "write me as one that loved his fellow men" and lo! his name led the list of those whom God had blessed.

I was taught social consciousness.

The "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" may have given Hamlet pause. But every other poem condemns his indecision. "It isn't the fact you're dead that counts,/But only, how did you die?" asks Edmund Vance Cooke. "It's how did you fight and why' and "how did you take" the troubles life throws at you. "Come up with a smiling face, to lie there--that's disgrace."

"Be strong!" admonishes Maltbie Davenport Babcock, "we are not here to play, to dream, to drift: we have hard work to do and loads to life. Shun not the struggle--face it; 'tis God's gift."

"Taint no use to sit an' whine," Frank Stanton encourages in Keep a-Goin, "drain the sweetness from the cup.

"Yours is the Earth and everything in it!" Rudyard Kipling cries. "If you can dream, and not make dreams your master."

"Act--act in the living Present!" proclaims Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Psalm of Life. "We can makes our lives sublime/ And, departing leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time!"

Natural beauty was extolled in these poems.

"Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree." Joyce Kilmer will always be remembered for this simple poem.  "What does he plant who plants a tree?" ashed Henry Cuyler Bummer in The Heart of the Tree. "He plants the glory of the plain; He plants the forest's heritage, the harvest of a coming age;/ The joy that unborn eyes shall see--"

William Wordsworth "wandered lonely as a cloud" and comes across "a crowd a host of golden daffodils" which like Shelley's skylark taught him gladness and "unbodied joy."

The book is tattered with bent edges and the paper cover of the book has separated from the spine. Yet it is one of my most treasured possessions, for it brought me to an early love of poetry.

The 1922 edition of  One Hundred and One Famous Poems from The Cable Company is found at the Library of Congress and can be downloaded in many formats.


  1. Oh what memories - I started searching for my books of poems and anthologies for children, how familiar they still are - and how beautifully the words roll off my tongue as I recite my favourites to my cats! Thank you so much for this post.

  2. I was just rummaging through my great-grandmothers stuff in her basement this evening and I stumbled upon a copy in a manila envelope! It had no read on it and no copyright, so after a little research on the internet, I was excited to see it was the 1929 revised edition (paperback) copywritten by the Cable Company. I'm much too excited for this to be in my possession and to read it!

    1. What a great find, especially as it belonged to your great-grandmother!