Bears–cute teddy bears to scary grizzlies–often make an appearance in children’s stories–from Goldilocks who came upon the three bears’ house in the forest (subject of a topsy turvy version by Roald Dahl) to Baloo in the Jungle Book, to Winnie-the-Pooh, and their relationship with ‘literary children’ has been described as rather ‘ambivalent’.* Some are friendly like Pooh and Baloo, but others well kept at a distance. One such instance, where bears’ ‘scary’ image is relied on is A.A. Milne’s poem, ‘Lines and Squares’, which ‘tries to make a poetic game map onto a child’s game, and vice versa’.* The poem first appeared in his collection When We Were Young, published in 1924, and illustrated (or rather, ‘decorated’) by E.H. Shepard. This book also has another famous poem ‘Teddy Bear’, said to be the first appearance of his most famous creation, Winnie-the-Pooh.
In the poem, Milne plays with the children’s game of walking in squares without stepping on the lines. As one does in the game of hopscotch, where one must jump through the shapes, and recover the stone or other object thrown inside without, among other things, stepping on a line, in which case you end up losing your turn.
But in Milne’s poem, stepping on a line or across a square doesn’t simply put you ‘out’ of the game, for here, at the edges of the squares, lurk ‘masses of bears’ lying in wait ‘all ready to eat’, who else but ‘the sillies who tread on the lines of the street’. But our narrator (I don’t think it is Christopher Robin in Shepard’s illustration), knows better and tells the bears, ‘Just see how I’m walking in all the squares’. The bears here are cunning, and pretend that all they’re doing is ‘looking for a friend’, and don’t care in the least whether you step on a line or don’t walk within a square. But of course, they’re only growling to each other, of which of them will get him when he steps on a line. Our narrator isn’t fooled though, unlike the ‘sillies’ who might believe what the creatures say, and tells the bears, that they can ‘just watch [him] walking in all the squares’!
This is a sweet little poem, reminding one of the games one played as children, but of course adding a gentle touch of fun (well, may not that gentle since it does involve the possibility of getting eaten by bears). A lovely little read!
Have you read this one before? What did you think of it? Looking forward to your thoughts!
- *James Williams, ‘Children’s Poetry at Play’, in Katherine Wakeley-Mulroney and Louise Joy (eds), The Aesthetics of Children’s Poetry: A Study of Children’s verse in English (Routeledge, 2018).
- When We Were Young, Wikipedia (here)
- The Three Bears Image via Wikimedia Commons (here)
- Hopscotch Image via Wikimedia Commons (here)
- Full poem here