There was a little churl . . . | Bleader

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Newt Gingrich
  • Newt Gingrich
What a fascinating fellow Newt Gingrich is. A couple of Sundays ago George Will cleared his throat to weigh in on him, and I hung on every word.

Substitute host Jake Tapper had interviewed Gingrich in the opening minutes of ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos. Afterward, Tapper asked Will to have his say. Will clearly expected the question, and he was ready for it. “Time is not Newt Gingrich’s friend,” Will intoned, “because the more time he has the more he talks, and the more he talks the more he says things—as he just did here this morning.

“He said, ‘I’d love to be civil, but I’m running against a maniacal liar,’” Will went on. “Now that’s pretty strong language.” The next thing Will said was addressed to Tapper. “ I don’t know if you’ve ever told Longfellow’s nursery rhyme to your four-year-old daughter Alice. ‘There is a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead…’”

  • Longfellow
Omigod! He was repeating my poem! You see, memorization was never one of my strengths back in school, and standing before the class and reciting poetry by heart was a challenge I wasn’t sure I could meet. But then I came across these lines by Longfellow that inscribed themselves in my mind. I dared anyone to tell me they constituted anything less than a poem.

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

“Thank you very much,” I said, and sat down. It’s not the longest or noblest thing Longfellow ever wrote, but here alone I believe he flirted with perfection. He made his point and shut up, and often poets don’t.

Now here was George Will reciting the same poem. Or verse or nursery rhyme or whatever he wanted to call it. The point is, George Will also knew it by heart!

…right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
she was very good indeed.
And when she was bad she was horrid.

"And we’re at the horrid stage with Newt Gingrich,” Will concluded.

Very good indeed! I couldn’t believe it. Wills was such a pedant he couldn’t bring himself to recite the poem the way Longfellow wrote it. I turned off the TV and headed upstairs to let the world know I had the goods on him.

But before I blogged and Facebooked and tweeted my scorn—the standard revised handbook of digital self-promotion insists we do all three—I looked for the poem online so I could link to the text. To my dumbfoundment, the first text I found had it Will’s way. Other sites had it my way. This disagreement was the least my discoveries. Various sites offered various additional verses, none of which I had any idea existed.

For instance….

One day she went upstairs,
When her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head
In her little trundle-bed,
And then began hooraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise,
And she thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic;
But when she climbed the stair,
And found Jemima there,
She took and she did spank her most emphatic.

All these new verses was execrable, and there was grave doubt any was authentic. Worse, there was no consensus that even the first verse was authentic. What online commentary I came across was laced with skepticism that Longfellow had had anything to do with writing any part of the poem. It doesn’t sound remotely like anything else by Longfellow, scholars had noted, and I had to concede the point.

For instance —

"Honor be to Mudjekeewis!"
Cried the warriors, cried the old men,
When he came in triumph homeward
With the sacred Belt of Wampum,


This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,

You can say about Hiawatha and Evangeline that neither is a bundle of laughs and Longfellow didn’t wrap them up quicker than you hoped he would. But I’d always supposed he simply wrote those on a bad day. Could it be he didn’t write the-girl-with-the-curl at all? What next? Would I read that Edgar Allan Poe was not the author of "Eldorado," another poem I proudly recited in class.

Gaily bedight,
a gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow…

I turned to Amazon. The Children’s Own Longfellow was searchable, but my search for curl turned up nothing. Biographies I searched online made no mention of the poem. I came across this tantalizing reference in a long essay on Longfellow written 30 years ago by Chicago scholar Edward Wagenknecht (since deceased).

“Everybody knows the famous doggerel,” wrote Wagenknecht, who was dealing with the superior “very, very good” version of the poem. “Did Longfellow write this or did he not? His son Ernest claimed that he did, but none of the other members of the family seem to have agreed with him, and there is certainly no conclusive evidence. The one thing that is certain is that he did not write the other stanzas sometimes appended to it. There was a learned and probably conclusive discussion of the matter by Sidney Kramer in the 1946 volume of the Bibliographical Society of America Papers.”

In these days of algorithmic digital scholarship, it comes as a relief to discover there is some scholarship that is virtually impossible to access online. The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America are such a trove, and eventually it was necessary for a sympathetic librarian in Philadelphia to e-mail me a pdf of Kramer’s 24-page treatise: “There Was A Little Girl: Its First Printings, Its Authorship, Its Variants.”

I’ll cut to the core of Kramer’s research. It seems the first variant of the poem surfaced in about 1870, its origins unclear. In 1880 a Blanche Roosevelt Tucker, aka the Marchesa Macchetta d’Alligri, paid Longfellow a call. She would describe the visit in a book published two years later, The Home Life of Henry W. Longfellow:

A momentary lull gave me a chance to speak, and not interrupt.

“Yes,” said I, deliberately, when all had finished, “there is no accounting for the rubbish that will in spite of judicious weeding find its way to publicity; the authors are never known, and perhaps it is as well. I can at present only call to mind one instance, under the head of poetry, which runs as follows: or” — I stopped with an inquiring look around, and half hesitatingly ventured to retract my implied idea of repeating it. In vain — an earnest “Pray go on,” “continue,” in which the professor’s voice was uppermost in the chorus, positively insisted on hearing the aforesaid “rubbish”; clearing my throat, I began —

“There was a little durl,
And she had a little curl
That hung in the middle of her forehead,
When she was dood,
She was very dood indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.”

I looked up triumphantly as the last line rang out. Depict, imagine, my confusion when the poet raised his eyes, and with a faint smile, said: “Why! Those are my words, are they not, Annie,” turning to his youngest daughter, who at that moment was gracefully coming through the low window opening out on the terrace, at the same time repeating the identical rhythm that but a moment before I had signalized as a sample of “rubbish.” Miss Annie looked up laughingly, and said in her cheery voice, “Why, of course, papa, that comes in your nursery collection. Don’t you remember when Edith was a little girl and didn’t want to have her hair curled, you took her up in your arms, and shaking your finger at her, commenced, “There was a little girl,’” etc. etc. The poet laughed, they all laughed, and I in spite of my discomfiture, joined in the general merriment.

This passage didn’t vanquish Kramer’s doubts. He points out that Longfellow has little to say here, and his few words come down to us secondhand and are hard to interpret. (Was Longfellow saying he wrote the verse or simply that he recited it?) Annie, three years younger than Edith, wouldn’t have any direct memory of what their father used to say to her big sister when she was tiny. Kramer also points out—though perhaps apropos of nothing—that Miss Roosevelt recited a baby talk version of the verse and Annie responded in plain English.

But if on the basis of this anecdote Kramer isn’t so sure Longfellow actually admitted his authorship to Blanche Roosevelt Tucker, he acknowledges that she was sure. After she published her book the attribution began to take hold, and in 1922 it was reinforced when Longfellow’s son Ernest, born in 1845, recalled in a memoir that “it was while walking up and down with his second daughter [Edith], then a baby in his arms, that my father composed and sang to her the well-known lines…”

Regrettably, the well-known lines Ernest Longfellow chose to repeat were the George Will variant. Kramer notes that the Ernest version is closer to the Miss Roosevelt version (minus the baby-talk) than it is “to the text most of us prefer.” He also notes “that the Longfellow girls did not wear curls on the forehead as a regular matter.” He acknowledges the view of skeptics who cannot imagine that a poet of Longfellow’s standing would have trafficked in a rhyme like “forehead / horrid,” but allows that a poet capable of that travesty could easily have perpetrated the rhyming atrocities in the other verses. What Kramer does not say (though I believe he was thinking it) is that “forehead / horrid” is actually a terrific rhyme that delights children (and George Will and me) because it’s so silly—but it only works if the poem immediately shuts down. The big reason nobody believes Longfellow wrote two more verses is that those are two verses too many—and even the author of Hiawatha (in 22 chapters) and Evangeline (in ten sections and 163 verses) would have known that.

What got me going on Longfellow anyway? I need to reread the beginning of this post.

Ahh, Newt Gingrich. Boy, there’s a name from the past!