Like Walter de la Mare and Edward Lear, and like their descendant Dr. Seuss, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) wrote poems that both adults and children can return to with pleasure.

Anyone who has read to small children knows that the words "return to" can be full of pain for the adult. Children can attach themselves to maddeningly stupid material. And they love repetition. Reading for the hundredth time about Hush and Brush the Color Kittens, or about Bobby and Martha helping Mother, can make grown-ups all but cry tears of protest and boredom.

Poetry itself involves repetition: that's what form is, and that is part of why most children like poetry. An artist like Stevenson knows how to counter the repetition with variation. He also knows that good poems are inexhaustible because they confront mysteries. For example:

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay

To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;

Or brought my trees and houses out,

And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

I like the way "happy" at the end of the first stanza and "pleasant" at the end of the last stanza mean what they say but also have a slightly blank or melancholy overtone. The words are just a bit -- to borrow from the wonderful sixth line -- "leaden." I like the way the child's body, almost as part of the immobilizing illness, becomes an immense landscape in imagination. Throughout, simple words generate subtle, not-so-simple kinds of feeling. For example, at the end, the poem changes from the imaginary past tense ("was the giant") to the present tense ("sees" and "sits"). That unshowy change makes the world of imagining large, real and permanent. The sick child in the poem experiences worlds through imagination. The poem itself does something similar.

Cadences and small variations can suggest depths, pointing toward realities and dreams beyond the surface. That is why we can return again and again to short, plain-looking poems by the likes of William Blake and Emily Dickinson. Some gifted children will not feel any great difference in making the transition to those poets from Stevenson and de la Mare. Lucky children familiar with all of these poets will have a great head start in understanding the power of sentences.

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