In 1883, publishers Cassell, Petter, Galpin, & Co. came out with a series of books “uniform in size and price” (8vo, 1s. each): Cassell’s Children’s Treasuries. Several volumes in the series are idiosyncratic collections of nursery rhymes, the usual Mother Goose fare with an emphasis on Scottish regional rhymes, and the occasional poem by John Keats (credited) or William Blake (uncredited) mixed in.
In a way this eclectic mix is just a slight exaggeration of more standard books of nursery rhymes. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is from the literary tradition as surely as “Humpty Dumpty” is from the folk tradition, and they rub elbows unostentatiously in any decent Mother Goose. Cassell just upped the ante a bit by swinging its pendulum between the canonical Romantics and relics of Scottish oral tradition, some of which are relatively opaque.
Is love true.
Is love deen.
…at least comes with the helpful gloss that deen means “done” (other sources say “dying”). But what are we to make of this rhyme, reprinted here in full?:
I looked it up, and learned that it indicates that “a year in which berries grow in abundance will be followed by a particularly heavy winter,” but I think we can agree that this meaning is not exactly intuitive for speakers of American English.
None of this is why I brought up the Children’s Treasuries, though; I wanted to talk about the illustrations. Most of the pictures are relevant to the rhymes the accompany: portrait of Simple Simon, the Queen of Hearts, etc., but scattered throughout some but not all of the nursery rhyme volumes are a series of spot illustrations that stand alone, like gag panels.
I once heard the complaint that when Gary Larson ran out of ideas he’d just draw animals doing some human thing; this is the model the anonymous illustrator of our volumes chose to follow. And since Cassell was publishing in the nineteenth century, the most human thing imaginable is, obviously, torturing animals.
And that is how an 1883 kid’s book ended up with a picture of an enormous fly tormenting naked children (below). Several more, similarly depraved pictures of ingenious torments follow.