Shockheaded Peter (Struwwelpeter) German Nursery Tales
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[Der Struwwelpeter (or Shockheaded Peter) is a German children's nursery book by Heinrich Hoffmann that was very popular in the 19th century and beyond. I remember looking at these when I was a child in Germany in the 1960's. This article was written in The Spectator as a celebration of these stories when Hoffman died in 1894.]
The children of Europe and America have lost their poet-laureate, Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, the immortal author of the songs that tell of Shockheaded Peter, Harriet and the Matches, and the Blackamoor. If the babies could be polled, there can be no question that they would give their votes in favor of the "Struwwelpeter" as the king of nursery-books. The verses and pictures hit the children of from two to five just between wind and water, and make them happy as do no others in all their literature. It is true that Mr. Lear's nonsense-poems and nonsense-drawings are always very pleasing to the children, and are probably enjoyed more greatly by the older boys and girls than even Dr. Hoffmann's book. They have, too, a literary and artistic excellence beyond that which can be claimed by the "Struwwelpeter." Still, take it all in all, the little ones love more to hear about Cruel Frederick and Dog "Tray" than even about the old man of Spithead, who opened the window and said, "Chickabee, Chickabaw, and he said nothing more." People of from two to five are not quite advanced enough to see the acuteness of the nonsense in Edward Lear's writings, and find greater pleasure in Dr. Hoffmann's poems. The "Struwwelpeter," then, must be reckoned one of the really great nursery-books—not the comet of a season, but a classic,—-a book which will be as much read by our children's children as by us. To have written such a work is no small achievement. It means that the author has managed to touch a very difficult and fastidious public, and to touch it just where it feels most keenly.
It is worth while to inquire more in detail what are the elements in the "Struwwelpeter" which give it its peculiar charm. We believe that it is the young child's book above all others, because it so successfully appeals to every one of the emotions which interest and please children. In the first place, the poems are all narrative,-—tell, that is, a simple story. But the first thing a child wants to hear is a simple story. Next, they all have in them the element of the strange and the marvellous,—-the element of exaggeration and wonderfulness. It is this love of the grotesquely marvellous that makes children so fond of stories of pink bears and blue cats. Next, children all like to hear about children. Dr. Johnson was utterly wrong when he said, "Depend upon it, Sir, babies don't want to hear about other babies." That is always exactly the thing they do want to hear about. But every one of the poems in the "Struwwelpeter" has to do with babies. Next, the poems are about naughty children. Little boys and girls undoubtedly like to have their flesh made to creep by hearing about their wicked brothers and sisters. A wicked grown-up person rather
appalls them, and is seldom a favorite. He is out of proportion. The naughty child is, however, near enough to be interesting and not too dreadful. His deeds of darkness give, too, a pleasant sense of virtue to those who hear about them. Without being hypocrites, the children have a right to feel satisfied that they are not as Shockheaded Peter, Cruel Frederick, Augustus, Suck-a-Thumb, or Johnny Head-in-Air. Then, too, children are by nature intensely didactic. They love a moral, and a moral which is well rammed home to their own breasts. Nothing is more delightful to a child than to say sententiously, "Little boys should be seen and not heard." The effect is not the least spoiled to the child by the fact that the enunciation of this great principle cuts clean through Mr. Jones's eloquent description of how he nearly voted for the wrong candidate at the last General Election, owing to a fixed mental confusion between Johnson and Jones which has always possessed his mind. Again, children have a keen sense of fun, and the "Struwwelpeter" is full of fun. Lastly, children have very quick ears, and the "Struwwelpeter" is written in a very pretty jingle,—-a jingle which is well kept up in the English version. The "Struwwelpeter" thus gives children satisfaction all along the line, and supplies all their emotional needs, moral and aesthetic. It is a perfect child's book because it tells just the things children want to hear. If any of the poems are examined in detail, it will be seen how exactly they fulfil the conditions we have named. Take, for example, the poem of Cruel Frederick. It is a capital short story of a boy who was punished for cruelty:—
"He caught the flies, poor little things,
And then tore off their tiny wings.
He killed the birds and broke the chairs,
And threw the kitten down the stairs.
And oh! far worse than all beside,
He whipped his Mary till she cried."
The infantile sense of pity and terror is delightfully played upon. There is something awfully thrilling in reading of these desperate acts. The poem, too, pleasantly reminds the good little boys and girls how virtuous they are in not yielding to these temptations. The poetic justice, for which children are always so hungry, is amply rendered. After Frederick has tortured good-dog "Tray," he is severely bitten in the leg in return:—
"So Frederick had to go to bed,
His leg was very sore and red.
The doctor came and shook his head
And made a very great to-do,
And gave him nasty physic too."
But the curtain cannot fall till the rewards have been distributed as well as the punishments:—
"But good dog Tray is happy now,
He has no time to say 'Bow-wow,'
He seats himself in Frederick's chair
And laughs to see the good things there!
The soup he swallows sup by sup
And eats the pies and puddings up."
Here, too, that sense of fun which children possess so greatly—-the sense which shows them not to be little savages, but the young of a civilized race—-is specially appealed to. The notion of dog "Tray" sitting up and eating Frederick's dinner, is to them delicious-—especially when brought home by the picture of "Tray, with a napkin round his neck, standing up on a red-seated chair, with his forepaws on the table, enjoying his soup. Over the back of the chair hangs Frederick's whip. The feeling of horror is conveyed by the story of "Harriet and the Matches." This, it will be remembered, is the story of the girl who burnt herself to death while a troop of pussy-cats first warned her, and then bewailed ner fate, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy:—
"Then how the pussy-cats did mew!
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help—-'twas all in vain,
So then they said 'we'll scream again.'"
Who can have forgotten the picture that closes the story? The pussy-cats, with mourning bows on their tales, weeping over the fate of naughty Harriet! The fairy-tale side is represented by the story of the boys who mocked the harmless Blackamoor, and were, in consequence, seized by tall Agrippa and put into the great inkstand. It is not stated who Agrippa was, but one always imagined him to be a magician. This was no case of premature knowledge that there was such a person as Cornelius Agrippa, but simply a deduction from general appearances. It is true that Agrippa wears a brown dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, but these cannot conceal the nature of the man. His fur cap with a red top is ample compensation for any little irregularities in the rest of his get-up. For children of four, Agrippa stands for the romantic and the marvellous. He is what "The Arabian Nights" and all the cycles of romance, Merlin, and the Knights of Logress or of Lyonesse, are to the grown-up. "The Story of the Man that went out Shooting" is almost pure comedy, but it has the great charm of introducing an animal who puts on spectacles and fires a gun. A child's first idea of fun is generally derived from the notion of an animal acting as a man. Why this should be it is not easy to see. Perhaps because that incongruity which is the rock-basis of all humor, according to Sydney Smith, is most plainly visible in a bear getting into bed or eating porridge. It might be supposed that "The Story of Augustus who would not have any Soup" would have been a little too much of a home-thrust to be a favorite. Yet, somehow or other, that tale of childish recklessness is always eagerly asked for in the nursery:
"Augustus was a chubby lad,
Fat ruddy checks Augustus had ,
And everybody saw with joy
The plump and hearty, healthy boy."
The lines are simple enough, but it is impossible to repeat them without feeling the sensations which are popularly attributed to the old war horse at the sound of the bugle. One sees at once, in the mind's eye, the lovely blue pictures in which the law of diminishing returns is operating on the plump body of Augustus, and hears the refrain:
"Oh take the nasty soup away,
I wont have any soup to-day."
Who, too, can forget the two last pictures? The last but one shows Augustus a mere shadow. The last, a little grass grave with a headstone marked "Augustus," and on the grave a tureen marked "Soup."
It would be an error not to pay special attention to the charm of the pictures in the "Struwwelpeter." It is impossible to imagine anything better suited to delight young children. If it is artistic to interpret a motive with force, simplicity and directness, and yet ingenuity, then assuredly these pictures are artistic. The drawing may be primitive, and the coloring more than crude, but as illustrations of the poems they are perfect. Especially good are all the details. Shock-headed Peter is displayed in his green gaiters and red tunic, and his yellow "hay-rick head of hair," standing on a pedestal ornamented with combs and scissors. That does not sound much, but placed as these emblems are, the result is most effective. How good, too, is the picture of the kitten that was thrown downstairs by Cruel Frederick. It lies dead at the bottom of a flight of steps with a brickbat on it, and enormously heightens the appeal of the whole composition. Inimitable is Frederick in his very German bed with the doctor by him, dressed in a blue coat and green trousers, and holding a large bottle marked "for Frederick." Observe, too, the chest of drawers in the picture of "Harriet and the Matches." The present writer can well remember meeting exactly that chest of drawers in the Tyrol, and at once recalling his "Struwwelpeter." And then Agrippa's inkpot. Never did artist draw an inkpot with a nobler and more liberal sweep of hand. It is an epic inkpot-—a joy and yet a mystery to every beholder. But one would run on for ages if one were to notice all the glories and descant on the expression of the fishes in "Johnny Head-in-air," or on the charm of the landscape in "The Story of Flying Robert"—-the church, the hill, the poplar, the rain-cloud and the red umbrella. These must be left to some Ruskin of the rattle and the hobby-horse. It is enough to say that the men and women who were lucky enough to be brought up on "Struwwelpeter"—-and few are they who were not, who were born after 1850—will always remember with delight the pictures in this enchanting book.
The genesis of the idea on which the "Struwwelpeter" rests, given us by Dr. Hoffmann himself, shows that he had a real insight into and sympathy for children. He found in his practice as a doctor, that it was often necessary to gain the confidence of the children he had to examine. This was most easily accomplished by a story and a rough drawing. These stories and rough drawings, done on the spur of the moment, were afterwards collected and became first a MS. nursery-book for his son, and then the most popular nursery-book of the world at large. Dr. Hoffmann did not sit down and say, "Now I will write a child's book," and then and there compose on abstract principles a book "suitable for young children." Instead, and with his eye as it were always on the object, and with a definite, practical aim, he made something which amused his boy and girl patients. Hence the fact that he never misses the mark, but always strikes the nursery bullseye. It was doubtless this which saved him from sentimentality,—-the bane of most children's books. There is not a trace of sentimentality in the whole work, and no infant, however precocious, could possibly shed "the tears of sensibility" over the "Struwwelpeter." It is all good healthy fun and nonsense, and the morals are as plain as a pikestaff. The strange thing is that, as far as we know, Dr. Hoffmann wrote no other children's books. In these days the publishers would never have allowed that. Dr. Hoffmann would have been simply forced to do a dozen sequels. In the forties, however, either men were made of sterner stuff, or there was less competition in the trade. Dr. Hoffmann was permitted to obtain immortality on twenty-four pages of verses and pictures.