2014.01.22 Little Willie is in his head

When my brother Dan mentioned Little Willie poems recently and suggested that they were probably By the Way material, I asked him who was going to write it and encouraged him to take it on. He did.


“It’s so odd what our children remember,” my mother said recently. What I remembered was my father reciting rhymes to us when we were kids. If you’re thinking of the usual cute nursery rhymes, you don’t know the Green family. The rhyme I was remembering went something like this:

Little Willie dressed in sashes,

Fell in the fire and burned to ashes,

By and by the room grew chilly,

But no one cared to poke up Willie.

I think my dad had a book of these rhymes, though I’m not sure. It seems like something terrible happens to either Willie or one of his family members in every poem. I loved them. That’s why I can still remember the “ashes” item more than 50 years later. Here's another:

Little Willie, full of glee,

Put radium in grandma's tea.

Now he thinks it quite a lark

To see her shining in the dark.

I haven’t thought about Willie for a very long time—not since the advent of the Internet. Now I’m able to look up where these dastardly verses came from and share that information with you. The nasty little rhymes were produced by a British writer named Harry Graham. His full name was Jocelyn Henry Clive Graham; no wonder it was shortened to Harry. He lived from 1874 to 1936.

Willie's on the railroad track.

The engine gave a squeal.

The engineer just took a spade,

and scraped him off the wheel.

Just reading one makes you want to make up your own Little Willie poem, doesn't it? For that matter, I can't guarantee that Mr. Graham wrote all the rhymes here. I found them here and there on the World Wide Web. Maybe in the years since Graham's time, people have added their own creations to the Little Willie library. 

Although Graham had a career as a soldier, and later wrote lyrics for musical comedies and operettas, he is only remembered today for the short, vicious verses he wrote in a book called Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, first published in 1898.

Willie built a guillotine.

Tried it out on sister Jean.

Said Mother as she got the mop:

"These messy games have got to stop."

I like the rhythm of these ditties, not just the words. Graham's most famous song lyric was an English translation of a German song, “You Are My Heart’s Delight.” He was also a journalist, a fiction writer, and history writer. Yet with all of those writerly credentials, what we remember are things like this:

"There's been an accident!" they said,

"Your servant's cut in half; he's dead."

"Indeed!" said Mr. Jones, "and please

Give me the half that's got my keys."

I just can't resist them. Graham wrote Ruthless Rhymes under the pseudonym of Colonel D. Streamer. The name comes from his regiment in the British military, the Coldstream Guards. 

I don’t know why he chose not to reveal his real name. Who wouldn’t be proud of these perfect four-liners? Maybe it was too shocking at the time. Maybe Little Willie poems were the equivalent of today’s slasher films. 

Personally, I’ll always be in his debt for helping to warp my sense of humor at an early age. Of course, I owe my dad for reading this stuff out loud to me. It was a short trip from these twisted poems to Mad magazine, Soupy Sales, and a TV movie host called Ghoulardi, and then my fate was sealed.

Below is my favorite Willie rhyme. Its beautiful economy of words can't be beat. The poem tells a story in just 11 words. It has purity of vision; it's Willie distilled to its essence. You could call it Willie haiku:

Little Willie

Pair of skates

Hole in the ice

Golden gates