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Friday, October 07, 2016

When Willie Wet the Bed

Unless you come from the Midwest or from Amherst, Massachusetts., the name Eugene Field may not instantly ring a bell. However, you probably know some of the works of this poet and newspaper columnist best remembered for his sentimental pieces for children and about childhood (although he also translated Horace and wrote an erotic story that was the most seized work by Anthony Comstock).  Among many other works, he penned "Wynken, Blynken and Nod," which was made into a short by Walt Disney, a song by Carly Simon, and is still reprinted in storybooks and anthologies for children, 




While shelf reading in the fine press collection I came across another, less famous, work by Field, entitled "Little Willie." The humorous poem is in the voice of a grandfather looking back on when his son was small. This is a common literary theme, but in this case he is specifically recalling how the son would wet the bed.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.


When Willie was a little boy,
  No more than five or six,
Right constantly he did annoy
  His mother with his tricks.
Yet not a picayune cared I
  For what he did or said,
Unless, as happened frequently,
  The rascal wet the bed.

Closely he cuddled up to me,
  And put his hands in mine,
Till all at once I seemed to be
  Afloat in seas of brine.
Sabean odors clogged the air,
  And filled my soul with dread,
Yet I could only grin and bear
  When Willie wet the bed.

‘Tis many times that rascal has
  Soaked all the bedclothes through,
Whereat I’d feebly light the gas
  And wonder what to do.
Yet there he lay, so peaceful like;
  God bless his curly head,
I quite forgave the little tyke
  For wetting of the bed.

Ah me, those happy days have flown.
  My boy’s a father, too,
And little Willies of his own
  Do what he used to do.
And I! Ah, all that’s left for me
  Is dreams of pleasure fled!
Our boys ain’t what they used to be
  When Willie wet the bed.

Had I my choice, no shapely dame
  Should share my couch with me,
No amorous jade of tarnished fame,
  Nor wench of high degree;
But I would choose and choose again
  The little curly head,
Who cuddled close beside me when
  He used to wet the bed.
Eugene Field died suddenly in 1895 at the age of 45, shortly after writing this poem. His New York Times obituary claimed he had become "as familiarly known as any writer of verse in this country." "Little Willie" was not published in his lifetime, but there were a number of private printings, beginning as early as 1896. Our copy dates from 1921 and was printed by John Henry Nash of San Francisco.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.

Interestingly, the poem also seems to have circulated in a  number of medical journals from the 1890s through the 1910s; perhaps they were seen as appropriate places for a poem about urination. A quick Google Books search suggests that it appeared in the Western Medical Journal, Atlantic Medical Weekly, the Carolina Medical Journal, the Medical Standard, the Denver Journal of Homeopathy, the Iowa Medical Journal,  the Medical Times, the Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic, and even the American Dental Journal.  Three of these journals only printed the first four verses, leaving our the fifth stanza, which alludes to prostitution or dissipation. This verse is included in the Nash printing.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.

I'm not sure how many other odes to bed wetting have been penned over the years, but this one made me laugh and I'm glad to have run across it.



Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster for the Rosen-blog


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