A. A. Milne

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A. A. Milne World Literature Analysis

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An important theme in Milne’s stories and poems is the relationship between adults and children. Adults appear fairly often in the poems, seldom in the stories. When they appear, they are shown as perceived by the children or by the animals, who are, with one exception in the Pooh stories, themselves children. Having apparently lost the sense of being a child (a loss which Milne himself clearly avoided), adults in Milne’s books fail to understand children. They ask tiresome questions about their wellness, which children must take pains to answer, as in the poem “Politeness,” while secretly wishing that the adults would discard the habit. Children do not rebel against parents in Milne’s work so much as express displeasure while acknowledging the inevitability of adults’ ascendancy.

The one exception to adults’ exclusion in the stories is Kanga, the diligent mother of Roo. When this little family of kangaroos comes into the Hundred Acre Wood, the other animals immediately object to the “Strange Animal.” Part of Kanga’s strangeness is her habit of carrying her son in her pocket, which they see as an excessive way of maintaining adult oppressiveness. Kanga is extraordinarily watchful when Roo is out of the pocket trying to enjoy himself. She is constantly insisting that it is time for them to go home and that Roo must be given two things which children are inclined to dislike: medicine and a bath. The other animals quickly decide to take action against Kanga. Their plan to steal Roo away from her avoids the starkness of real rebellion, they think, because they sneak a substitute, Piglet, into her pocket. However, Kanga’s mastery of adult watchfulness foils the plot. She takes Piglet home, pretends that he is Roo, applies the bath and the medicine, and adds withering criticisms of Piglet. Fortunately for the little pig, Christopher Robin appears and insists that Roo is back with animal friends but apparently cannot recognize the newly bathed Piglet.

Christopher, however, is for all the animals a gentle version of adulthood. He represents the kind, helpful, unassuming presence for which the animals long. He regularly appears when his assistance is truly needed. At the end of the first Kanga and Roo story, of course, the other animals and the new residents become friends. There are intimations, however, that Christopher is destined for the role of adulthood. He is away from home much of the day, for he is being educated, being prepared for adulthood.

In some of the early poems children play at being adults or, as in “Nursery Chairs,” scaring adults. The speaker of the “second chair” scares her nanny by pretending to be a lion in a cage. In “Disobedience” the child tells of a mother who has sinned in the manner of a child by running off “to the end of the town” and getting herself lost. A mother who runs away from home is a humorous and impossible situation to the young spirits of the Hundred Acre Wood.

For the most part Milne’s children and animals simply behave like children. They live in a world fashioned by adults, but they make it their own by imposing convenient regulations on themselves beyond the imaginative capacities of adults. They imagine that a “bear” will get them if they step on the lines between sidewalk tiles, or they sit “halfway down”a stairway because it is not the top or the bottom but a place that “isn’t really anywhere.” An even better escape is the journey to places in the natural world left unappropriated by adults: uninhabited islands, hills, and—especially in the Pooh stories—the forest....

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These places are children’s territory where exciting things can happen, like the appearance of the Heffalump, a mythical being that Milne knows needs no description because every child can imagine his own Heffalump. They are enchanted places, but the chief enchantment is the absence of adults and the conviction that these places are made for children and animals and in part by them, such as their dwellings, chiefly in hollow trees that conveniently incorporate remoteness and domestic necessities.

Many other themes have been discovered in the Pooh stories. Milne’s animal characters exaggerate, almost caricature human traits, somewhat like those in the characters of Charles Dickens’s novels, often with characteristic sayings. For instance, Pooh is a creature of “very little brain,” as he freely admits. He is struggling to succeed in the face of a formidable personal limitation—as is the typical reader. Eeyore, the melancholy donkey, needs constant cheering up but in the process cheers the reader with his humorous self-deprecation. On his birthday, for instance, he offers thanks for his nonexistent birthday cake and the candles that are not there either. Tigger has an eating problem. He knows just what he likes until he tries it, in the way of many children, and discovers that he does not like it after all. Piglet, as with many children of small stature, is inclined to feel inconsequential.

As friends they help each other compensate for their deficiencies. They are presexual, preadult creatures who appeal to children not yet bewildered by these later problems, whereas adult readers are transported back to the time when their world also was one of birthday parties, unfailing friendships, and exciting adventures in which threatened catastrophes are regularly circumvented.

The style of Milne’s stories and poems is simple, humorous, and, like the characters, playful. The characters wrestle with words and their permutations and confront polysyllables such as “expedition” and “resolution,” which insist on coming out in the animals’ mouths as “expotition” and “rissolution.” The stories have a large proportion of efficient dialogue that moves the action along and reinforces the characters’ traits. Milne was also very fond of nonsense words of the type that Dr. Seuss later perfected: expressions such as “woozle,” “squch,” and “mastershalums.” In the poems, Milne achieves little surprises with unexpected rhymes of the sort later associated with Ogden Nash: “Copses” leads to “wopses”; “quickly” leads to “tickly.”

Milne’s originality often begins with a borrowed idea that is promptly enhanced. The teddy bear began as a nickname for Theodore Roosevelt, but it surely came to fruition in Milne’s poem “Teddy Bear” and in his later Pooh. Milne could adapt medieval materials, such as romances, even an alchemist, to poems for children. He could make a kind of child’s pastoral by combining in one poem two venerable characters from children’s rhymes, Little Bo-Peep and Little Boy Blue. Like many original writers, he knew how to make appropriated features his own.

When We Were Very Young

First published: 1924

Type of work: Poetry

At a time ofsentimentality and silliness in children’s poetry, Milne speaks to children not in baby talk but in simple but rational English.

When published in 1924, When We Were Very Young became an immediate best seller, and, like the children’s books that followed, attracted adults also. It contains forty-five poems that only occasionally veer toward the infantile vocabulary characteristic of children’s poems in the early 1920’s.

The last poem in When We Were Very Young was written first, in 1922. Based on Alan and Daphne Milne’s observation of their two-year-old son at prayer, it was first published early in 1923. Ann Thwaite, Milne’s biographer, calls “Vespers” an ironic poem by a man little interested in prayer or conventional religion. The boy in the poem is given their son’s own name, Christopher Robin, a name that would later become that of the boy in the two collections of Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

The book also includes in its introduction the name Pooh, which the real Christopher had given to a swan. It also introduces Edward Bear, known as Teddy, a “short and stout” bear, which would later become Winnie-the-Pooh. Otherwise the animals in these poems are not the animals of the later stories.

“Independence” is one of the shorter poems and one of the most emphatic. It represents the voice of a child swinging on a tree branch and expressing his disdain of incessant cautions from overprotective parents. Parents, however, remain benighted, so there is no point in telling them. Children in Milne’s poems are not rebels but wearily docile subjects, because complaining to adults accomplishes nothing. They just do not understand.

In a longer and more remarkable poem, “Disobedience,” Milne reverses the roles. A three-year-old named James Morrison orders his mother never to “go down to the end of the town” without consulting him. Not heeding his advice, his wayward mother goes but never comes back. More often, however, the children of this book are seen when they are free of parents. They are wandering, in reality or imagination, in fields, on islands, by brooks, among trees, or solitarily, sitting on a particular stairway in their home. They are being themselves, which does not mean running wild, for they impose their own limits, such as the time-honored one of traversing paving stones without ever stepping on the lines.

Winnie-the-Pooh

First published: 1926

Type of work: Short stories

Milne brought animal toys in his son’s nursery to life by making them speak and act like real children and adapting them to a natural setting attractive to children.

In the first Pooh story, “Edward Bear” of the earlier poem becomes Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh was the name the real Christopher Robin had given to a swan. When Pooh becomes a bear, Milne’s reason for the distinctive hyphenated “the” is not known, nor is the significance, if any, of the fact that he lives “under the name of Sanders.” The name may simply ridicule the adult habit of appropriating things in nature by naming them. In Winnie-the-Pooh, versions of children’s animal toys appear in a wood that has been appropriated by animals that have gained the likenesses of people—particularly children.

Milne immediately establishes what became perhaps the most famous Pooh motif, the fact that the little bear eats honey to excess. Eating is often discussed and done in the stories, and in the second story Pooh, after doing his morning “stoutness exercises,” overeats while visiting Rabbit and gets stuck in the hole that is the latter’s doorway, a good example of the application of Pooh’s status as a “Bear of No Brain.” In both stories Christopher rescues the bear, in the second one reading to him for a week while the dieting Pooh grows slender enough to permit his many friends to yank him from the hole.

This pattern predominates in Winnie-the-Pooh. Either Pooh or one of his animal friends faces a problem or an embarrassment, but the wise young human, Christopher, and helpful friends extricate them from their trouble. Whenever there is a problem, there is a discussion, usually humorous, of a possible solution, and one member of the little community is a potential victim and another an often unexpected hero. Despite his small brain, for example, Pooh is the one who discovers how to save little Piglet in a flood. Friendship works in all directions in Winnie-the-Pooh.

One of the most delightful aspects of this book is its attitude toward mistakes. They happen, cause worry, but are eventually overcome. There is much fun about errors in such basic lessons as learning to count and spell. Another shortcoming is aping the mistakes of elders; Owl, for instance, falls into tiresome adult rhetoric and must be suppressed firmly but politely. The friends survive even mistakes in human relations. Eeyore, for example, somehow gets it into his head that a party for Pooh, who has just rescued his friend Piglet, is for him and begins a speech of self-praise. Christopher sets him right, and they charitably ignore Eeyore’s clumsy attempts to come to terms with his humiliation. Pooh’s gift, a Special Pencil Case, gives the donkey the chance to air his view that “this writing business” is much “over-rated.”

The House at Pooh Corner

First published: 1928

Type of work: Short stories

The second Pooh book offers another ten stories of the group’s friendships and adventures but works toward an awareness that childhood must come to an end.

After publishing a second book of poems, Now We Are Six, in 1927, Milne issued his second and last Pooh book in 1928. In many respects it is like his first one, although he introduces one new character, Tigger, whose bounciness signifies his impulsive and reckless character, to enliven the scene.

The last story, however, is very different. It is a goodbye to Christopher and the Hundred Acre Wood. It is the whimsically gloomy Eeyore, probably the funniest of all Milne’s creatures, who celebrates in a verse of his own construction Christopher’s “going.” The poem itself exemplifies one of the author’s favorite techniques: the speaker’s interruption of his own poem to complain about such things as the difficulty of finding appropriate rhymes or other suddenly discovered poetic weaknesses. When the poem is recited to the animals, Pooh alleges that it is better than the poem he had meant to contribute, to which Eeyore replies that “it was meant to be.”

As Christopher reads the poem later, the animals depart until only Pooh is left. He tells Pooh that they will take a walk together. When Pooh asks where, his answer is “nowhere,” and he tells Pooh that the thing that he prefers doing is “nothing.” Their walk, he points out, is a good example of “nothing.” Christopher talks of some of the things that he is learning, all unfamiliar to Pooh, and then, simulating a ceremony of knighthood, dubs Pooh his most faithful knight. Pooh, however, not understanding Christopher’s intention, supposes that his failure represents a failure of his own. Next Pooh is distressed to learn that Christopher will do “nothing” no more, or at least much less often because “they don’t let you.” Then the two trail off together. The House at Pooh Corner, as well as Milne’s contributions to children’s literature (other than a dramatization of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which appeared in 1929) have come to an end after just a few short years in Milne’s writing career.

It seems clear that the fact of Christopher and Pooh going off together signifies both the end of childhood adventures and their imperishable persistence in memory. Milne apparently needed a young son to keep him in the Winnie-the-Pooh vein, and by 1928 the real Christopher was turning eight, beyond the toys and ways of his younger years, and would soon be attending a prep school. Milne admitted that his interest in children’s books was then fading. He thought that perhaps it would return when he became a grandfather, although, as it turned out, his only grandchild was not born until after his death.

As his son reported in his book The Enchanted Places (1976), Milne considered writing to be, among other things, a “thrill.” At a certain point the thrill of a certain kind of accomplishment fades. The writer may still accede to the demand for more of the same, and readers would certainly have welcomed more Pooh stories, but Milne chose to end when the thrill had passed.

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