A. A. Milne

When We Were Very Young

“Christopher Robin has given him the name of 'Pooh'... a very fine name for a swan, because, if you call him and he doesn't come, then you can pretend that you were just saying "Pooh!" to show how little you wanted him.”

It might surprise you to learn that Winnie the Pooh was a swan before he was a bear. A real, cheeky swan who became, A. A. Milne (January 18 1882 – Janunary 31 1956) tells us in his first book of children’s verse When We Were Very Young, a particular friend to Milne’s young son.

Christopher Robin who feeds this swan in the mornings, has given him the name of “Pooh.” This is a very fine name for a swan, because, if you call him and he doesn’t come (which is a thing swans are good at), then you can pretend that you were just saying “Pooh!” to show how little you wanted him. Well, I should have told you that there are six cows who come down to Pooh’s lake every afternoon to drink, and of course they say “Moo” as they come. So I thought to myself one fine day, walking with my friend Christopher Robin, “Moo rhymes with Pooh! Surely there is a bit of poetry to be got out of that?”

With the simplicity of truth as his starting point,1 British writer A. A. Milne created the jolly, whimsical book of verse When We Were Very Young that set the tone for his subsequent, beloved Pooh characters.

There is a bear in this collection too, but he only appears as “Teddy Bear” (although he demonstrates the curious, adventurous personality of the yet to be created Winnie the Pooh).

A bear, however hard he tries,
Grows tubby without exercise.
Our Teddy Bear is short and fat
Which is not to be wondered at;
He gets what exercise he can
By falling off the ottoman,
But generally seems to lack
The energy to clamber back.

Now tubbiness is just the thing
Which gets a fellow wondering;
And Teddy worried lots about
the fact that he was rather stout.
He thought: “If only I were thin!
But how does anyone begin?”
He thought: “It really isn’t fair
To grudge me exercise and air.”

From “Teddy Bear”

Not to fear, Bear soothes his concerns by chancing upon a picture of a rather rotund King of France and notes if such a Royal be tubby, he is in good company.

Illustration for A. A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young" in the Examined Life Library.
“I’m sorry for the people who sell sweet lavender ‘Cos they haven’t got a rabbit, not anywhere there!” from the poem “Market Square.” Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard, courtesy of the book.

Roald Dahl once suggested that his popularity as a children’s book author came from the fact that he never underestimated his audience. Children were as smart and strong and curious as adults.

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse. Courtesy of Charlie MacKesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

If Dahl makes adults of children, Milne does the opposite. He proposes to return us to our own young innocence.

Take this lovely delight of a poem:

Happiness

John had
Great Big
Waterproof
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Hat;
John had a
Great Big
Waterproof
Mackintosh-
And that
(Said John)
Is
That.

Milne’s repetition of “Great Big” indicates that it – not the boots nor the hat – is the source of happiness. (What parent hasn’t done the same? Time to put on your yellow boots and your fluffy hat! I said this very morning.)

Or this poem about a girl who disappears for days and returns terribly dirty but keeps her hands clean (and is so thoroughly proud of that accomplishment).

Emmeline
Came slipping between
the two tall trees at the end of the green.
We all ran up to her. “Emmeline!
Where have you been?
Where have you been?
Why, it’s more than a week!” And Emmeline
Said, “Sillies, I went and saw the Queen.
She says my hands are purkickly clean!”

From “Before Tea”

In his childhood memoirs, British writer Laurie Lee stepped back into his child shoes and imagined that world anew as an adult. He saw its immediate boundaries “The village was the world and its happenings all I knew” Lee wrote in Cider with Rosie.

Milne similarly narrows his poems to a child’s point of view. A child that goes to market and regrets there are no rabbits; a child who visits Buckingham Palace and imagines tea with the King; a child who sits on the middle stair because it is halfway there.

There is little in this collection which I cannot imagine my own daughter doing, and through that proxy, my own young self.

Independence

I never did, I never did, I never did like
“Now take care, dear!”

I never did, I never did, I never did want
“Hold-my-hand”:

I never did, I never did, I never did think much of
“Not up there, dear!”

It’s no good saying it. They don’t understand.

Illustration for A. A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young" in the Examined Life Library.
“I never did, I never did, I never did like ‘Now take care, dear!'” from the poem “Independence.” Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard, courtesy of the book.

To write for children, of children, we must step into the place of children. Of course we cannot go home (and when we try we are greatly disappointed) so instead we must suspend our adult selves and listen to children.2 Milne accompanied his son Christopher Robin and imagined his son’s beautiful, curious mind.3

“Then there is another thing,” Milne explains in When We Were Very Young, “You may wonder who is supposed to be saying the verses.”

Is it the Author, that strange but uninteresting person, or is it Christopher Robin, or some other boy or girl, of Nurse or Hoo?… You will have to decide for yourselves. If you are not quite sure, then it is probably Hoo. I don’t know if you have ever met Hoo, but he is one of those curious children who look four on Monday, and eight on Tuesday, and are really twenty-eight on Saturday, and you never know whether it is the day when he can pronounce his “r’s.” He had a great deal to do with these verses.

To keep one’s child self so present, what a gift!

It is difficult to read When We Were Very Young and not be struck by the difference in childhood one hundred years ago versus today (cuddling bears at the zoo?!).4

Some things, however, remain very much same and that is the preciousness of this book. You will see your own kids in the lines, perhaps even yourself when you were very young.

Illustration for A. A. Milne's "When We Were Very Young" in the Examined Life Library.
“Halfway Down” Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard, courtesy of the book.

Accompany this classic with Robert MacFarlane’s call for curiousness, Roald Dahl’s memoirs Boy (which are equally – sometimes awkwardly – silly). T. S. Eliot’s odes to cats and my own study of wonder and the delight of being read to.