Amongst my chattels is a most improbable tea cup my grandfather, Grendel, had as a child. It is from England, made by Royal Doulton, and would date to approximately 1900. It sports a nursery rhyme with an illustration.

Figure 1. Grendel’s teacup. Obverse. Photo: author.

The obverse (figure 1) has the incipit of the rhyme on a banner above a picture of a man with a blunderbuss taking aim at a duck.

The reverse (figure 2) bears the whole of the rhyme, or at least its first stanza:

There was a little man, and he had a little gun,
And his bullets were made of lead.
He went to the brook, and shot a little duck,
Right through its little head.

Figure 2. Grendel’s teacup. Reverse. Photo: author.

The prosody is fairly good; ‘and’ (in verses 1, 2) and ‘the’ (verse 3) interrupt the iambic flow, but receive so little stress as to be invisible. Stresses always fall on the verse ends: gun-lead-duck-head; and these intimate the sad story of the duck almost on their own. This makes sense, as the poem is directed at a child.

You can see the marks in the gilded rim of the cup from a child’s teeth, and it seems clear that this cup was meant to offer a simple teatime lesson to a child learning to read.

I do not think my great-grandparents were particularly grisly, and they do get points (in my book, at least) for choosing the name Grendel. So what were they thinking when they gave their young kid a rhyme like this?

Figure 3. Grendel’s teacup. Bottom. Photo: author.

First, people were very different then and lacked many of our sensibilities (just as we lack many of theirs). Shooting an animal for food was a thinkable proposition then, even if unlikely for urban-dwelling folks in Seattle. Nor is this cup alluding to (or celebrating) blood sport.

The most alien property of the cup to me is the fact that the grim (for the duck, anyway) story serves as a vehicle for teaching the rhythms and sounds of poetry. In fact the poetic conventions of indented short verses and capitalization at the beginning of every verse also stand out.

Poetry was evidently important to those people, and not simply to people raised, like my grandfather, in a privileged class. My grandmother, Grendel’s wife, Frances, could quote much poetry at will, with a predilection for Tennyson, yet she was from humble origins in North Dakota.

On the other hand, my mother and father, born in the 1930s, never uttered a line of memorized poetry that I remember, though they were well educated, thoughtful people. The widespread sensibility that poetry was something to be esteemed and internalized had evolved into the assimilation of popular culture: my mother was able to quote extensively and sing 1940s songs like the Andrews Sisters’ Don’t sit under the apple tree and the Pied Pipers’ Mairzy doats. I learned these from her alongside the Hail Mary and Our Father. Poetry, not so much.

To return to that distant age of my grandparents’ birth and even earlier, taphophiles will know that many American gravestones exhibit snippets of poetry, especially on mid-19th century marble tablets, too worn to read easily, if at all.

When you can make out the poetry it turns out that most of it consists of lyrics from hymns. Though those people, mired in the self-improving ethos of the Victorian age, knew their poetry on top of their Bible, most probably imbibed most of their poetry rote through the hymns to which they were constantly exposed.

(Come to think of it, though I know the lyrics of very few rock songs, I remember a great many, like the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! turn! turn!” and the Beatles’ “Let it be,” which were staples of the 1970s RC folk masses I, at least attended.)

I do not, however, know the hymnals of the various denominations, and only know the lyrics of a few hymns from studying them in this space. But if one did know the hymns, as could be counted upon in the people of those times, how different the experience of walking through the 19th-century sections of cemeteries would be! Recalling the music as you read the words, you’d see that stones all around you were singing at you in a jumbled chorus of hymns.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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  1. Reminds me of the poem for learning the irregular imperatives in Latin:
    I have a duc
    His name is dic
    He has fer on his back
    and that’s a fac.
    I once unintentionally metathesized the first two imperatives and was quite baffled by the students convulsing on the floor with paroxysms of choking laughter. Remembering the incident still makes me blush.
    I think memorization of poetry was much more common in our grandparents’ days. I still make people memorize the first lines of the Aeneid when I do a course on it.


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