A Favorite Heirloom Book Illustrated by Maxfield Parrish

Cover of Eugene Field and Maxfield Parrish, Poems of Childhood, 1904

By P. F. Sommerfeldt –

If you had a favorite book as a child, depending on how old – or young – you were, this book is not unlikely to look fairly battered if you’ve still had it long into adulthood. On the one hand, your parents wanted you to take good care of things but on the other hand, they knew you had to learn this as a long process and not everything held up well in this process over decades.

In my case, my book was already old when I received it after it was loved by several prior generations since my grandfather Philip Holden and my mother Fay Holden also owned this same copy in Napa and Sausalito in Northern California and I eventually inherited this book from my mother after I had cherished it as a child and now cherished more as an adult. So this favorite old book is a collaboration by Maxfield Parrish (artist) and Eugene Field (poet), titled Poems of Childhood published by Scribner’s in 1904. The cover (above) has a lot of wear and tear and some front pages are missing. Pencil scribbles also appear in places and a few pages are torn but I don’t know if these are my own childhood damages or from earlier generations. My copy has little value to anyone else for resale as a collectors’ item, but it is priceless to me. 

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) is justifiably famous as an artist for his elegant and tightly-composed, generally static classicism and vibrant pastel colors. I did a spot of research and found 19th century poet Eugene Field (1850-95) from St. Louis, Missouri, was often called the “Poet of Childhood”.  He spent some short academic stints at Williams College and Knox College, later University of Missouri, having also traveled to Europe and especially loving London. Fields only lived to the age of 45 but wrote three collections of poetry and essays. Field’s strongly-rhythmic and vernacular verse is conducive to musical conversion. His style is similar to the German sprechstimme or sprechgesang, where the “sing-song” internal rhyme appears overtly simple but can also be a subtle halfway mark of bardic lyricism.  Field’s literature for children too often masks his clever allusions to Virgil and Horace – he must have had some Latin training – and he also alludes to Boccaccio and Rabelais, not just in his humorous drinking songs. He spent several decades as a journalist and editor for the St. Jospeh Gazette and the Chicago Daily News. But Fields was at his very best in famous verses like his “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” (originally named “Dutch Lullaby”) which is his best-known poem. This memorable fantasy was recorded in 1964 by Carly Simon and her sister Lucy Simon, written by Lucy Simon ( Elsewhere my Emmy Award-winning friend Susan Hammond, trained at Royal College of Music in London and awarded the Order of Canada, also recorded it for her Classical Kids Daydreams and Lullabies 1993 production ( “Wynken. Blynken and Nod”  has naturally been performed by many other artists.  

M. Parrish, “Winken, Blynken and Nod”

Back to Maxfield Parrish – the cover of my  battered Poems of Childhood 1904 book features Jack and the Beanstalk’s giant in conversation, “Giant with Jack at His Feet”.  I also loved Parrish’s illustrations for Field’s poems like “The Dinkey-Bird”, “Shuffle-Shoon and Amber-Locks” and ‘The Fly-Away Horse,” several of them shown here even if the colors are faded after more than a century.

M. Parrish, “The Dinkey-Bird”

M. Parrish, “Shuffle-Shoon and Amber-Locks”

Parrish, whose work often appeared as covers in Harper’s Magazine, Life, Collier’s and other publications he illustrated – including Mother Goose and The Arabian Nights, among other classics – may be most known for his painting “Daybreak” which has inspired many other visuals and been often imitated, including in a poster for the romantic comedy 1987 cult film “The Princess Bride”.

Because of my interest in Parrish, I also own a wonderful book about him by Coy Ludwig, Maxfield Parrish, Watson Guptill Publications, New York, 1973. 

M. Parrish, “Daybreak”, 1922

One of my favorite Field lyrics in his “Shuffle-Shoon and Amber-Locks” poem – much more appreciated now that I have grandchildren than when I was a girl – is far more sophisticated beyond its initial surface appearance: 

“Shuffle-shoon and Amber-Locks

sit together building blocks;

Shuffle-Shoon is old and gray,

Amber-Locks a little child,

but together at their play

Age and Youth are reconciled…”