Tuesday 17 May 2016

Climbing the Golden Staircase

This - The Golden Staircase: Poems and Verses for Children, chosen by Louey Chisholm - was the poetry anthology of my earliest childhood (to be supplemented later by the Golden Treasury, A Book of Narrative Verse, Lyra Heroica and the near-anthology Tennyson & Browning). I still have my Golden Staircase, in a condition best described as falling apart, but still just about intact, complete with childish drawings on what endpapers survive. Published in Edinburgh (around 1900?), it is a very Scottish-flavoured anthology, full of border ballads and the likes of Young Lochinvar and Edinburgh After Flodden (both of which, I believe, I had by heart, little though I understood them, especially the latter). It is arranged as a journey through poetry, from verses suitable for a four-year-old to more demanding stuff that might suit a 14-year-old; the last poems are Arnold's The Forsaken Merman and two long ballads (The Gay Goshawk and Hynde Etin). As if the 200 selected poems weren't enough, there follow a selection of Cradle Songs and another of Carols, Hymns and Sacred Verse.
 The illustrations (by M. Dibdin Spooner) look insipid to my adult eye, but I found many of them haunting in my boyhood - not least The Forsaken Merman ('Come dear children, let us away; Down and away below'), The Pied Piper [above] and Kipling's The Hump ('Lifted the hump - the horrible hump - the hump that is black and blue').
 Looking at the volume again just now, I noticed that the first poem, The Robin ('When father takes his spade to dig, Then Robin comes along...') and several others are ascribed to Laurence Alma Tadema. Alma Tadema, the Victorian Olympian? Did he write as well as paint? Well, no - this Laurence Alma Tadema, I discover, was the oddly-named daughter of the great Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (and it's not easy to imagine him taking his spade to dig in the garden...). She seems to have led a blameless life of good works, good causes and literary endeavours, mostly for the benefit of children. She never married or had any children of her own - a fact that lends poignancy to her little poem If No One Ever Marries Me, which was set to music very effectively by Natalie Merchant (late of 10,000 Maniacs): here's the link.
 Another poem from The Golden Staircase that was set to music much later was Wynken, Blynken and Nod (the illustration for which was one of my favourites). This lullaby (by Eugene Field) had the honour of being set and performed by no less a figure than Donovan Leitch, and can be heard on his children's album, HMS Donovan (arguably his best work). Enjoy...

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