September 22, 2003

"Papa's Letter" Delivered

In a reading for the course, The Writing of Poetry, a reading was assigned that included the anonymous poem, Papa's Letter.

In chapter two of Western Wind, the required text for EL233, The Practice of Poetry, the topic discussed is emotions. The book explains that a writer/reader can neither be too sensitive nor too insensitive. The book gives many examples of each, as well as well-balanced poems.

One of the poems that is depicted as too sensitive is the anonymous poem, Papa's Letter. I have never heard of this poem before this assignment, however, I thought that it was an excellent poem. Now perhaps I am condemning myself as an over-sensitive "poet," but I think that the text did not give this poem the credit that it deserves.

Papa's Letter

I was sitting in my study,
Writing letters when I heard
"Please dear mama, Mary told me
Mama mustn't be disturbed.

"But I's tired of the kitty;
Want some ozzer fing to do.
Writing letters, is ou mama?
Tan't I wite a letter too?"

"Not now, darling, mama's busy;
Run and play with kitty, now."
"No, no mama, me wite letter;
Tan, if 'ou will show me how."

I would paint my darling's portrait
As his sweet eyes searched my face.
Hair of gold, eyes of azure,
Form of childish, witching grace.

But the eager face was clouded,
As I slowly shook my head,
Till I said: "I'll make a letter
Of you, darling boy, instead."

So I parted back the tresses
From his forehead high and white,
And a stamp in sport I pasted
'Mid its waves of golden light.

Then I said, "Now, little letter,
Go away and bear good news."
And I smiled as down the staircase
Clattered loud the little shoes.

Down the street the baby hastened
Till he reached the office door.
"I'se a letter, Mr. Postman;
Is there room for any more?

'Cause dis' letter's doin to papa,
Papa lives with God, 'ou know,
Mama sent me for a letter,
Do 'ou fink at I tan go?"

But the clerk in wonder answered,
"Not today, my little man."
"Den I'll find anozzer office,
'Cause I must go if I tan."

Suddenly the crowd was parted,
People fled to left, to right,
As a pair of maddened horses
At the moment dashed in sight.

No one saw the baby figure-
No one saw the golden hair,
Till a voice of frightened sweetness
Rang out on the autumn air.

'Twas too late-a moment only
Stood the beauteous vision there,
Then the little face lay lifeless
Covered o'er with golden hair.

Rev'rently they raised my darling,
Brushed away the curls of gold,
Saw the stamp upon his forehead
Growing now so icy cold.

Not a mark the face disfigured,
Showing where the hoof had trod;
But the little life had ended-
Papa's letter was with God.

Anonymous, Nineteenth Century

Posted by Sarah Rosenberg at September 22, 2003 03:07 PM

Sarah, how would you say your understanding of this poem has changed? It's still the same poem it was before, when you liked it. What prevents you from seeing it as a "good poem" now?

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at September 22, 2003 03:46 PM

I loved this poem! I'd like to see an example of the other side too!

Posted by: Diana Geleskie at September 22, 2003 03:55 PM

Whoops -- I see that you are in fact defending the poem. OK, then first what is it about this poem that your book SAYS makes it too sensitive? How does this poetic style differ from poems that are considered more literarily significant? That coot widdle wisping dawling was marked for death from the first stanza, so I wasn't particularly surprised or emotionally effected by the outcome. From a scientific perspective, I doubt his golden forehead would have gotten icy cold that quickly.

For some hilarious send-ups of this kind of death-fixated melodramatic poetry, check out the Emmeline Grangerford sequences in chapters 17 and 18 in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

(start around paragraph 55 or so).

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at September 22, 2003 03:56 PM

Perhaps I could have clarified this a little more. The text implied that this poem was over sensitive, as it is unrealistic and too "cutesy."

I disagree with the text. I think that this is an excellent poem. Many poems are unrealistic, and receive credit where credit is due. This poem however, is critisized by the text because it does not *imply* that it is emotional, but rather *is* emotional.

Although I obtain great respect for poetry as it, like all good writing, is extremely difficult to master. However, I don't believe that a poem should be harshly critiqued because the content is direct and to the point.

While it is true that most of the poems traditionally praised are somewhat vague, and yet identifiable to the reader, I don't think that there is anything wrong with a poem being direct. Why should a precise meaning be hidden when it can plainly be explained?

I do still believe that poetry should not always be so direct though. That is in part why it is so difficult to create, and yet so easy to appreciate. However, poetry relies heavily on the readers' reactions, and emotions. And therefore, although "Papa's Letter" is a sensitive poem, I believe it deserves more credit than "Western Wind" gives.

Posted by: Sarah at September 22, 2003 04:03 PM

Just found this great discussion. And now I feel rude for reading that poem aloud to class yesterday as a prima facia example of overly sentimental poetry. Would I be out of line if I commented?

The reasons I gave for what makes "Papa's Letter" a poor poem -- and which the book might have address -- include: the oversimplifying of human emotions (which are quite complex); the appeal to pity (dead children); the dialect of the child and the general subject matter (nostalgia/loss); the 'fantasy' of the poem (including it's unrealistic treatment of psychological motives); the lack of imagery.

Having said all that, the poem does succeed in its intention and in a way it is >entertaining<. I find the poem quite funny. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with feeling a certain way at all. Sentimental literature is just one genre among many; but you should realize that it's frowned upon by contemporary poets and editors. Sentiment isn't inherently immediately bad, but there is the issue of audience and this is why sentimentalism is something to be concerned about in a creative writing class. Contemporary readers of poetry often resist the obvious pulling of heartstrings. Why? Because they usually carry some hidden agenda or subscribe to some ideology -- and this is why propoganda is always so simplistic, too. "Papa's Letter" -- while endearing -- has "guilt trip" written all over it. Why?

Okay, I must sound like I'm defensively ranting... I really meant to just say that I can see your viewpoint, Sarah, and apologize if my parodic in-class reading upset you. But just like I discourage the writers in class from writing children's poetry, I want to encourage you to resist sentimentalism and write more honestly.

Hope you don't mind my appearance here -- I love talking about this stuff and hope you'll come talk with me further about this issue whether in office hours or in class or here.

By the way: I linked to your blog recently!

-- Dr. A.

Posted by: Mike Arnzen at September 24, 2003 12:00 PM

I really appreciate that Dr. Arnzen took the time to write me that comment. (If anyone saw me smirking in class yesterday, it was because I had previously written this before, and I thought it was ironic that this poem was chosen to be discussed).

I do agree that "Papa's Letter" is over the top, but I just merely wanted to voice my opinion that I think it is still a good poem, despite its "melo-drama." A more detailed version discussing both sides of the spectrem is in my Poetry journal which I'll post on here later, hopefully :)

Posted by: Sarah at September 24, 2003 04:17 PM

I was very glad to find this poem here. I remembered it from my childhood, my older sister had to read it in High School about 1978.
I have too small daughters, youngest just turn 6 she is never quite aware of the street. I was searching for this poem but didn't know the author
only "Papa's letter." I just read it to both of my children, the littlest cried(just as I did as a kid)She promises to be more careful around the street. JUST WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR .lOVE THIS POEM AND IT HAS SENTIMENT AND PURPOSE!

Posted by: Cheryl Campbell at November 18, 2003 06:59 PM

Glad to be of assistance!

Posted by: Sarah at November 18, 2003 07:07 PM

My mother was born in 1909 and learned this poem when she was at school. She can still remember every word of it although she is 94 years old. I have her on video reciting "Papa's Letter" at her 94th birthday party. She taught it to me as a child, I taught it to my daughter and my daughter taught it to her daughter (my grand daughter) who won a prize for reciting it at school. It is something all my family associate with my mother and I shall never forget it.

Posted by: Mrs K Wrighte at November 19, 2003 07:13 PM

I really think that this is a piece to treasure, which is why I initially wrote about it. I must admit that I am very touched by the responses that I have received. (My poetry class is almost at an end, and this is still one of my favorite poems that we have read this semester).

I think that it really is a great poem to pass on generation to generation and I know that I will always keep it close to my heart. Thank you to everyone that has responded, I enjoy and appreciate and your comments.

Posted by: Sarah at November 20, 2003 01:29 PM

I have a ?victorian print with this poem on the bottom, I would be interested to know if any one has one as well and could tell me any history about it.

Posted by: angela chidley at December 3, 2003 09:21 AM

Looking for the words of Papa's Letter. I thank you if you can oblige. Send to

Posted by: Jim Lee at December 15, 2003 03:13 PM
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