Sunday, September 25, 2005

How doth the little busy bee

The British Library now offers a digital version of Lewis Carroll’s original ‘Alice’ manuscript. The site says: "Alice’s Adventures Under Ground by Lewis Carroll (mathematician and pioneer photographer Charles Dodgson) is one of the most famous of British Library’s treasures. It is Carroll’s hand-written version of the work later published as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

Seeing notice of this immediately brought to mind one of the "improving" poems that Carroll parodies, the one that begins "How doth the little busy bee." It's title is "Against Idleness And Mischief" and it's by Isaac Watts, included in a collection published in 1715 entitled Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of CHILDREN (London: M. Lawrence). Here's the poem:
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthy play,
Let my first years be passed
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

In my youth and middle age these sentiments and their expression in these bouncy quatrains were wholly alien. I saw in them sentimentality and hypocracy. They were for me mindless and complacent expressions of an uncaring ascendancy. I had no patience for them. I saw them as transparent and cynical manipulation.

Among poets it was easy to lump Tennyson and even Kipling into this Victorian closet to be contempuously dismissed.

But now that I've advanced beyond middle age I've learned to love Tennyson and appreciate Kipling. Having developed a mild passion for British thought in the eighteenth century, I now try to imagine the impetus behind the goal of giving good account for every day in books or work or healthy play. It seems now that it might be one of the beginnings of a revolutionary change from passive acceptance of hierarchy and place, to a new, fresh sense that life was susceptible to improvement; one could better oneself and the world could be made a better place.

These thoughts brought back to mind the writings of some 19th-century relatives: Sarah Thorne and Hannah Wolf. A very few pages came down to me from them, none with any explanation. I'll write about them in another post.

For now, here is Carroll's parody of Watt's 'How doth:'

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

And here a link to The Poems in Alice in Wonderland, by Florence Milner (published in 'Bookman', 1903.

And finally, the busy bee in life,

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