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Warning to Children -- Robert Graves

Guest poem submitted by Reed C Bowman

Well, the appearance of another Milne poem gives me a perfect chance to
submit this, which I have been wanting to send in since I first found it was
not on the site.

I would like to submit Robert Graves'
(Poem #564) Warning to Children
 Children, if you dare to think
 Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
 Fewness of this precious only
 Endless world in which you say
 You live, you think of things like this:
 Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
 Red and green, enclosing tawny
 Yellow nets, enclosing white
 And black acres of dominoes,
 Where a neat brown paper parcel
 Tempts you to untie the string.
 In the parcel a small island,
 On the island a large tree,
 On the tree a husky fruit.
 Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
 In the kernel you will see
 Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
 Red and green, enclosed by tawny
 Yellow nets, enclosed by white
 And black acres of dominoes,
 Where the same brown paper parcel -
 Children, leave the string alone!
 For who dares undo the parcel
 Finds himself at once inside it,
 On the island, in the fruit,
 Blocks of slate about his head,
 Finds himself enclosed by dappled
 Green and red, enclosed by yellow
 Tawny nets, enclosed by black
 And white acres of dominoes,
 With the same brown paper parcel
 Still untied upon his knee.
 And, if he then should dare to think
 Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
 Greatness of this endless only
 Precious world in which he says
 he lives - he then unties the string.
-- Robert Graves
My father introduced me to this poem, as one of his favorites. It
captured me by its imagery out of dreams (or hallucinations - Graves was
not averse to the occasional psychotropic), rendered the more vivid
and ensorceling by the strong meter and (almost) repetition. Some years
ago I decided to try to memorize it, and found it difficult, because of
the slight changes with each recurrence of the cycle. Then I wrote it
out, and found I understood it better and could memorize it. There is
nothing like slow and careful calligraphy, I find, to make one pay
attention to every nuance of every word (and indeed letter) - the only
thing that comes close is setting type by hand ... but not that many of
us do that sort of thing, more's the pity.

The poem's structure is intricate and, involving as it does the concept
of infinite regress, it is self-referential. The reversal of "enclosing"
to "enclosed by" allows the poet to escape from the infinite regress,
even while involving the daring child more directly in the visual and
tactile maelstrom.

At the end, of course, the outcome is a vindication and validation of
curiosity and daring to think. The Yellow Submarinesque enfoldings of
the package, island, and child stand for the wonders, the wonder of the
world as seen by the inquisitive mind and eye. And that is the real
reason the poem should be read by and to children.

One last note: I find, when I read this poem aloud (almost all poems
should be read aloud) or recite it, that the first string of adjectives
"the greatness, rareness, muchness,/Fewness of this precious only/
Endless world..." reads with "only" somehow qualifying "endless", or
being almost a mere conjunction. In the second instance, I find myself
reading it with equal weight and space to the adjectives around it, as
if it were commaed off and part of the list: "this Endless, Only,
Precious world." I suppose that's going a bit against Graves'
instructions (a.k.a. his punctuation) but I find the reading powerfully
suggests itself.


[I've added in a few links - martin]

We've run several of Graves' poems before; there's a biography at poem #55

Another dizzingly Escherian poem is Kreymborg's 'Geometry': poem #306

The Milne poem referred to is the recently run poem #562

Also, the mention of Milne in conjunction with today's poem reminds me of
one of my favourite verse fragments from his work:

  I think I am a Traveller escaping from a Bear
  I think I am an Elephant
  Behind another Elephant
  Behind *another* Elephant who isn't really there...
        - A. A. Milne, from 'Busy'


38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anna McIntyre said...

i think that this poem is about the dangers of wanting,
the great motivation of capitalism.
it is perhaps along the lines of " the imagination is a great tool, but terrible master"?
like it love it yum yum yum
(but it also gives me shivers)

mohammad saleem said...

i don really like the poem because i couldnt really understand it as well as i usually can. Most poems i have read are pretty hard to understand for otheres, but they come easy to me. Why dont i understand this one? If you get this, plz tell me wut you think about the poem. It would help alot!! :) My email is
thx again.

mohammad saleem said...

did you get my email? if not here is a breif summary of wut i said. I need your help to help me understand the poem. My email is

Sporadic Bob said...

What a poem! I'm still reeling.

I'm a little surprised by the comments suggesting that the clever nested
structure is the most interesting thing about this poem! To me it is just
dripping with meaning - one of those yearning, inchoate meanings you could
never express in prose - which I guess is one mark of a great poem; saying
what could never be said any other way. But I'll try anyway :-) What I
get from this poem is two themes: the intense, hallucinatory richness of
life (at least when your eyes are open to see it - chemically or otherwise),
and the wonder of a child leaping into this richness, biting the apple,
starting a journey. The structural tricks are there to serve and strengthen
this meaning, or at least that's the effect they had on me.


Ron Wiseman said...

This poem tends to be less of a bad dream than others of this period in this poet's oeuvre. It may be childish, but it is endearing and silly in a fond kind of way. Perhaps a poet ironically at play? Speculation, Graves opines, ends in pointless recurrence, eternally in meaningless thought.

Anonymous said...

its kinda like curiosity killed the cat... but also danger.. so your lost in the abis of this metiforicle island.

Richard R. Rankin, Jr. said...

I think the title says it all. Don't be the one who unties the string.

Gio said...

I feel this poem is about order. A child will use "the" and with that causes untidy confusion and combine with curiosity leads to the island and so forth until eventually leading to where the enclosings are, the much more organised. Which leads to the point of "not to disrupt the order" because it takes longer to sort

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