A book which needs to be written is one dealing
with the childhood of authors. It would be
not only interesting, but instructive; not merely
profitable in a general way, but practical in a
particular. We might hope, in reading it, to gain
some sort of knowledge as to what environments
and conditions are most conducive to the growth
of the creative faculty. We might even learn how
not to strangle this rare faculty in its early years.

At this moment I am faced with a difficult task,
for here is an author and her childhood in a most
unusual position; these two conditions-that of
being an author, and that of being a child-appear
simultaneously, instead of in the due order to
which we are accustomed. For I wish at the outset
to state, and emphatically, that it is poetry, the
stuff and essence of poetry, which this book
contains. I know of no other instance in which such
really beautiful poetry has been written by a child;
but, confronted with so unwonted a state of things,
two questions obtrude themselves: how far has
the condition of childhood been impaired by, not
only the possession, but the expression, of the gift
of writing; how far has the condition of authorship
(at least in its more mature state still to
come) been hampered by this early leap into the

The first question concerns the little girl and
can best be answered by herself some twenty
years hence; the second concerns the world, and
again the answer must wait. We can, however,
do something-we can see what she is and what
she has done. And if the one is interesting to the
psychologist, the other is no less important to the

Hilda Conkling is the younger daughter of Mrs.
Grace Hazard Conkling, Assistant Professor of
English at Smith College, Northampton,
Massachusetts. At the time of writing, Hilda has just
passed her ninth birthday. Her sister, Elsa, is
two years her senior. The children and their
mother live all the year round in Northampton,
and glimpses of the woods and hills surrounding
the little town crop up again and again in these
poems. This is Emily Dickinson's country, and
there is a reminiscent sameness in the fauna and
flora of her poems in these.

The two little girls go to a school a few blocks
from where they live. In the afternoons, they
take long walks with their mother, or play in the
garden while she writes. On rainy days, there
are books and Mrs. Conkling's piano, which is not
just a piano, for Mrs. Conkling is a musician, and
we may imagine that the children hear a special
music as they certainly read a special literature.
By “special” I do not mean a prescribed course
(for dietitians of the mind are quite as apt to be
faddists as dietitians of the stomach), but just
that sort of reading which a person who passionately
loves books would most want to introduce
her children to. And here I think we have the
answer to the why of Hilda. She and her sister
have been their mother's close companions ever
since they were born. They have never known
that somewhat equivocal relationship-a child
with its nurse. They have never been for hours
at a time in contact with an elementary intelligence.
If Hilda had shown these poems to even
the most sympathetic nurse, what would have been
the result? In the first place, they would, in all
probability, have been lost, since Hilda does not
write her poems, but tells them; in the second, they
would have been either extravagantly praised or
laughingly commented upon. In either case, the
fine flower of creation would most certainly have
been injured.

Then again, blessed though many of the nurses
of childhood undoubtedly are (and we all remember
them), they have no means of answering the
thousand and one questions of an eager, opening
mind. To be an adequate companion to childhood,
one must know so many things. Hilda is
fortunate in her mother, for if these poems reveal
one thing more than another it is that Mrs.
Conkling is dowered with an admirable tact. In
the dedication poem to her mother, the little girl

“If I sing, you listen;
If I think, you know.”

No finer tribute could be offered by one person to
another than the contented certainty of understanding
in those two lines.

Hilda tells her poems, and the method of it is
this: They come out in the course of conversation,
and Mrs. Conkling is so often engaged in
writing that there is nothing to be remarked if she
scribbles absently while talking to the little girls.
But this scribbling is really a complete draught of
the poem. Occasionally Mrs. Conkling writes
down the poem later from memory and reads it
afterwards to the child, who always remembers
if it is not exactly in its original form. No line,
no cadence, is altered from Hilda's version; the
titles have been added for convenience, but they
are merely obvious handles derived from the

Naturally it is only a small proportion of
Hilda's life which is given to poetry. Much is
devoted to running about, a part to study, etc. It
is, however, significant that Hilda is not very keen
about games with other children. Not that she
is by any means either shy or solitary, but they do
not greatly interest her. Doubtless childhood
pays its debt of possession more steadily than we

Now to turn to the book itself; at the very start,
here is an amazing thing. This slim volume contains
one hundred and seven separate poems, and
that is counting as one all the very short pieces
written between the ages of five and six. Certainly
that is a remarkable output for a little girl,
and the only possible explanation is that the poems
are perfectly instinctive. There is no working
over as with an adult poet. Hilda is subconscious,
not self-conscious. Her mother says that she
rarely hesitates for a word. When the feeling is
strong, it speaks for itself. Read the dedication
poem, “For You, Mother.” It is full of feeling,
and of that simple, dignified, adequate diction
which is the speech of feeling:

“I have found a way of thinking
To make you happy.”

That is beautiful, and, once read, inevitable;
but it waited for a child to say. Poem after poem
is charged with this feeling, this expression of
great love:

“I will sing you a song,
With love in it,
(How I love you!)”

“Will you love me to-morrow after next
As if I had a bird's way of singing?”

But it is not only the pulse of feeling in such
passages which makes them surprising; it is the
perfectly original expression of it. When one
reads a thing and voluntarily exclaims: “How
beautiful! How natural! How true!” then
one knows that one has stumbled upon that flash
of personality which we call genius. These poems
are full of such flashes:

“Sparkle up, little tired flower
Leaning in the grass!”

. . .

“There is a star that runs very fast,
That goes pulling the moon
Through the tops of the poplars.”

. . .

“There is sweetness in the tree,
And fireflies are counting the leaves.
I like this country,
I like the way it has.”

A pansy has a “thinking face”; a rooster has a
comb “gay as a parade,” he shouts “crooked
words, loud . . . sharp . . . not beautiful!”;
frozen water is asked if it cannot “lift” itself
“with sun,” and “Easter morning says a glad
thing over and over.”

No matter who wrote them, those passages
would be beautiful, the oldest poet in the world
could not improve upon them; and yet the reader
has only to turn to the text to see the incredibly
early age at which such expressions came into the
author's mind.

Where childhood betrays genius is in the mounting
up of detail. Inadequate lines not infrequently
jar a total effect, as when, in the poem of
the star pulling the moon, she suddenly ends,
“Mr. Moon, does he make you hurry?” Or,
speaking of a drop of water:

“So it went on with its life
For several years
Until at last it was never heard of
Any more.”

This is the perennial child, thinking as children
think; and we are glad of it. It makes the whole
more healthy, more sure of development. When
the subconscious mind of Hilda Conkling takes a
vacation, she does not “nod,” as erstwhile
Homer; she merely reverts to type and is a child

I think too highly of these poems to speak of
the volume as though it were the finished achievement
of a grown-up person. Some of the poems
can be taken in that way, but by no means all.
The child who writes them frequently transcends
herself, but her thoughts for the most part are
those proper to every imaginative child. Fairies
play a large role in her fancies, and so does the
sandman. There are kings, and princesses, and
golden wings, and there are reminiscences of
story-books, and hints of pictures that have pleased
her. After all, that is the way we all make our
poems, but the grown-up poet tries to get away
from his author, he tries to see more than the
painter has seen. The little girl is quite
untroubled by any questions of technique. She
takes what to her is the obvious always, and in
these copied pieces it is, naturally, less her own
peculiar obvious than in the nature poems.

Hilda Conkling is evidently possessed of a rare
and accurate power of observation. And when
we add this to her gift of imagination, we see
that it is the perfectly natural play of these two
faculties which makes what to her is an obvious
expression. She does not search for it, it is her
natural mode of thought. But, luckily for her,
she has been guided by a wisdom which has not
attempted to show her a better way. Her observation
has been carefully, but unobtrusively, cultivated;
her imagination has been stimulated by the
reading of excellent books; but both these lines
of instruction have been kept apparently apart
from her own work. She has been let alone there;
she has been taught by an analogy which she has
never suspected. By this means, her poetical gift
has functioned happily, without ever for a moment
experiencing the tension of doubt.

A few passages will serve to show how well
Hilda knows how to use her eyes:

“The water came in with a wavy look
Like a spider's web.”

A bluebird has a back “like a feathered sky.”
Apostrophizing a snow-capped mountain she

“You shine like a lily
But with a different whiteness.”

She asks a humming-bird:

“Why do you stand on the air
And no sun shining?”

She hears a chickadee:

“Far off I hear him talking
The way smooth bright pebbles
Drop into water.”

Now let us follow her a step farther, to where
the imagination takes a firmer hold:

“The world turns softly
Not to spill its lakes and rivers.
The water is held in its arms
And the sky is held in the water.”

School lessons, and a reflection in a pond-
that is the stuff of which all poetry is made. It
is the fusion which shows the quality of the poet.
Turn to the text and read “Geography.” Really,
this is an extraordinary child!

It is pleasant to watch her with the artist's
eagerness intrigued by the sounds of words, for

“-silvery lonesome lapping of the long wave.”

Again, enchanted by a little bell of rhyme, we have
this amusing catalogue:


That is the conscious Hilda, the gay little girl,
but it shows a quick ear nevertheless. We can
almost hear the giggle with which that “Cauli-
flowers” came out. Usually rhyme does not
appear to be a matter of moment to her. Some
poets think in rhyme, some do not; Hilda
evidently belongs to the second category.
“Treasure,” and “The Apple-Jelly-Fish-Tree,” and
“Short Story” are the only poems in the book
which seem to follow a clearly rhymed pattern.
If any misguided schoolmistress had ever
suggested that a poem should have rhyme and
metre, this book would never have been “told.”
In “Moon Doves,” however, there is a distinctly
metrical effect without rhyme. But the great
majority of the poems are built upon cadence,
and the subtlety of this little girl's cadences
are a delight to those who can hear them.
Doubtless her musical inheritance has all to do
with this, for in poem after poem the instinct for
rhythm is unerring. So constantly is this the case,
that it is scarcely necessary to point out particular
examples. I may, however, name, as two of her
best for other qualities as well, “Gift,” and
“Poems.” The latter contains two of her quick
strokes of observation and comparison: the morning
“like the inside of a snow-apple,” and she herself
curled “cushion-shaped” in the window-seat.

Dear me! How simple these poems seem when
you read them done. But try to write something
new about a dandelion. Try it; and then read
the poem of that name here. It is charming;
how did she think of it? How indeed!

Delightful conceits she has-another is “Sun
Flowers”-but how comes a child of eight to
prick and point with the rapier of irony? For it
is nothing less than irony in “The Tower and the
Falcon.” Did she quite grasp its meaning
herself? We may doubt it. In this poem, the
subconscious is very much on the job.

To my thinking, the most successful poems in
the book-and now I mean successful from a
grown-up standpoint-are “For You, Mother,”
“Red Rooster,” “Gift,” “Poems,” “Dandelion,”
Butterfly,” “Weather,” “Hills,” and
“Geography.” And it will be noticed that these
are precisely the poems which must have sprung
from actual experience. They are not the book
poems, not even the fairy poems, they are the
records of reactions from actual happenings. I
have not a doubt that Hilda prefers her fairy-
stories. They are the conscious play of her
imagination, it must be “fun” to make them.
Ah, but it is the unconscious with which we are
most concerned, those very poems which are probably
to her the least interesting are the ones which
most certainly reveal the fulness of poetry from
which she draws. She probably hardly thought
at all, so natural was it, to say that three pinks
“smell like more of them in a blue vase,” but the
expression fills the air with so strong a scent that
no superlative could increase it.

“Gift” is a lovely poem, it has feeling,
expression, originality, cadence. If a child can write
such a poem at eight years old, what does it mean?
That depends, I think, on how long the instructors
of youth can be persuaded to keep “hands off.”
A period of imitation is, I fear, inevitable, but if
consciousness is not induced by direct criticism, if
instruction in the art of writing is abjured, the
imitative period will probably be got through
without undue loss. I think there is too much
native sense of beauty and proportion here to be
entirely killed even by the drying and freezing
process which goes by the name of education.

What this book chiefly shows is high promise;
but it also has its pages of real achievement, and
that of so high an order it may well set us pondering.