The Reading Mother

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Strickland Gillilan's (1869–1954) poem often floats through my mind.  

But then I realized I didn't even know just what books Mr. Gillilan was referring to!  

Here's what I found out: 

I had a mother who read to me 
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea.
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth;
"Blackbirds" stowed in the hold beneath.

"The "blackbirds" referred to in the Gillilan quote above, incidentally, were human cargo stolen from slavers." R.L. SCHREADLEY  article.  At first I thought Gillilan was referring to Treasure Island or Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  But T.I. was first published on May 23, 1883, when Gillilan was 14, and I don't remember anything about these pirates being slave runners.

I think it is more likely Gillilan was referring to "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates" a 1724 book published in Britain, containing biographies of pirates, that was wildly popular (notice the "sagas of pirates" - plural).  I suspect Gillilan's favorite was about Blackbeard, since he was running at the same time as the slave traders, but since I haven't read the biography, I don't know.

Amazingly, the facts of the book have been proven accurate (though probably not the pirates conversations).  In 1925 the pirate historian Philip Gosse wrote:
"Not a long while ago it was the custom to smile indulgently at Johnson's History as being a mixture of fact and fancy, but from time to time old documents have been rescued from some dusty nook of oblivion which have proved his good faith. Many of the incidents looked upon as imaginary are found all to be absolutely accurate in date and circumstance". (Wikipedia)
I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

On my own bookshelf I have an old book with hand-cut pages and no publishing date called "The Golden Age" by Kenneth Grahame (of The Wind in the Willows fame).  I perused this book, wondering if Gillian had read it, but when I googled it, I realized it was published too late - 1895.  It's noteworthy as "Grahame casts his reminiscences in imagery and metaphor rooted in the culture of Ancient Greece; to the children whose impressions are recorded in the book, the adults in their lives are "Olympians," while the chapter titled "The Argonauts" refers to Perseus, Apollo, Psyche, and similar figures of Greek mythology. Grahame's reminiscences, in The Golden Age and in the later Dream Days (1898), were notable for their conception "of a world where children are locked in perpetual warfare with the adult 'Olympians' who have wholly forgotten how it feels to be young" — a theme later explored by J. M. Barrie and other authors." (Wikipedia)  Gillilan's mother must have read him mythology. 

Marmion is an epic poem by Walter Scott about the Battle of Flodden Field (1513), and was published in 1808.  You can read all about it here. 

Ivanhoe is an historical fiction novel by Sir Walter Scott published in 1820, and set in 12th-century England. It is sometimes credited for increasing interest in Romanticism and Medievalism.  The character Ivanhoe, though of a more noble lineage than some of the other characters, represents a middling individual in the medieval class system who is not exceptionally outstanding in his abilities, as is expected of other quasi historical fictional characters, such as the Greek heroes. (Wikipedia) 

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness lent with his final breath.

Gelert is the name of a legendary dog associated with the village of Beddgelert (whose name means "Gelert's Grave" but note that it is now accepted that the village of Beddgelert took its name from an early saint named Kilart or Celert, rather than from the dog) in Gwynedd, northwest Wales.  Here, the dog is alleged to have belonged to Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, and to have been a gift from King John of England.

In this legend, Llywelyn returns from hunting to find his baby's cradle overturned, the baby missing and the dog with blood around its mouth. Imagining that it has savaged the child, Llywelyn draws his sword and kills the dog, which lets out a final dying yelp. He then hears the cries of the baby and finds it unharmed under the cradle, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by Gelert. Llywelyn is then overcome with remorse and he buries the dog with great ceremony, yet can still hear the dying yelp. After that day Llywelyn never smiles again. (Wikipedia).  Also see Wikipedia for to view the painting Gelert by Charles Burton Barber. 

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings-
Stories that stir with an upward touch.
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

For us that means wholesome stories, such as Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.  Stories that have proven true with time, are uplifting, and make our children think. 

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be --
I had a Mother who read to me.

I want to be this kind of mother.


  1. A great poem...I love seeing moms reading to their children.

  2. Thanks for the great information and the lovely reminder. This has always been one of my favorite poems, and one my Dad quoted often.

    1. Oh my goodness, Jennifer, I'm reading your book! Nancy Campbell of Above Rubies recommended it. I just checked out your website thinking your name sounded familiar. Thanks for your nice comment!

  3. I'm glad you referred me back to this post, Janine. Guess what? Knight's Castle, the book I just quoted in a post, involves Ivanhoe! In the book, the children have had Ivanhoe read to them (and they also go to the movie in the theater). Some of their ensuing adventures are taken from or reminiscent of the story in Ivanhoe.

    1. I'll definitely put that onto our reading list then! I just picked up Eager's Half Magic, remembering how much I enjoyed that as a child. So many great books! Thanks for sharing with me : )

  4. My kiddos aren't little anymore and can easily read their own books and they still like me to read to them! They also really enjoy listening to audiobooks!