Eliza Lee Follen


Follen wrote children's verse in the context of her involvement in the Sunday School movement, whose purpose by the 1830s was to provide religious education for children. Given this context, the absence of direct moral instruction in her poems is remarkable. Instead, she dramatizes lyric moments in childhood---moments of identity formation and desire. Follen's introduction to the poems indicates her wish to capture the sensory pleasure of nursery rhymes with folk origins (whose historical references, often political, have been lost or are lost on children). The aim of adapting and reproducing qualities of folk tradition links her verse with Romanticism---and many of her poems seem to echo William Blake's "Songs of Innocence"---but her interest in sound for its own sake also precedes and anticipates the establishment of nonsense poetry as a modern genre (most notably by Edward Lear, 1812-1888, and Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898).

"Stop! Stop! Pretty Water" and "My Little Doll Rose" both concern female identity. In the first, the girl's mother has given her permission to pursue knowledge that is ultimately not attainable---to go on a Romantic quest. In the second, the girl is loving caretaker of an object named "Rose," a standard name for the objectified heroines of love lyrics in relation to whom male lovers define their own subjectivity. Is the child practicing to be such an object, or is she shaping her own subjecthood by projecting all helplessness onto the doll? "Do You Guess It Is I?" takes the form of a riddle, but the riddle genre turns on the "I" being something other than the human speaker---a made or natural object. Here what is riddled on is the child who speaks the lines.

"Frolic in the Snow" and "It Can't Be So" concern male identity. Little Willy here seems bent on "lighting out for the territory" like Huck Finn---fleeing the domesticating care of his mother to face nature as his dog does; a "melodrama of beset manhood," as Nina Baym described the male individualist tradition in American literature. Follen disciplines the Romantic ambitions of the boy in "It Can't Be So," perhaps also suggesting Republican mothers' struggles to raise citizens whose aspirations are not shaped around feudal lore (i.e., aristocratic images being the most desired).