With the `Public Act 51' of 1919, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring teachers to teach at least one of Will Carleton's poems to children in school. Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, this Victorian poet and his work seem to have been forgotten, which is too bad. Each of Carleton's poems tells a story and reading one is just like jouncing along in a surrey behind a team of trotting horses. It makes me want to hum a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune: "Watch the fringe and see how it flutters * When I drive them high steppin' strutters ..."
Each couplet rhymes. Each poem has a moral that is not precisely subtle. For example, an old farmer has a lawyer draw up divorce papers in "Betsey and I are Out." In the very next ballad, "How Betsey and I Made Up" the old man throws the divorce papers into the fire when his wife "kissed [him] for the first time in over twenty years!" This poem ends with: "I'm richer than a National Bank, with all its treasures told,/ For I've got a wife at home now that's worth her weight in gold."
One of Carleton's most famous poems begins: "Over the hill to the poor-house I'm trudgin' my weary way--/ I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray--" If that doesn't tug at your heart-strings...well, not to worry. The very next ballad is "Over the Hill from the Poor-House" where the old woman's horse-thievin' son fixes up her old cottage and takes her home (after he gets out of jail).
There are 33 poems in all, mostly of rural life, but with a few patriotic ditties mixed in for good measure, e.g. "Mending the Old Flag" and "Our Army of the Dead." The black-and-white illustrations could have been taken straight out of "Currier and Ives." The frontispiece of the 1882 edition is protected by a tissue-paper overlay.
If you feel like taking a trip down nostalgia lane, it would be difficult to top "How we Kept the Day" or "The Fading Flower." Maybe our kids would grow up better after memorizing these old ballads.