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.