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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday - Some Golden Laughs... "Detention Hour"

September 28, 2017

Tags: Poetry Friday, 19th Century, children's literature, poetry, school poem, Golden Days, Detention Hour

September is tossing us a few hot-potato days here in the Southeast as we stand on the brink of October… but cooler temps are promised for coming days. In my slightly toasty studio, I decided to pull out some copies of GOLDEN DAYS – a newspaper/magazine “for girls and boys” published in the late 1800s (Philadelphia: James Elverson, Publisher) to see if I had any September issues. Voilà! I found one dated September 11, 1897.

Any poems inside? Well, yes - a couple.

This one made me laugh, so perhaps it can tide us over until the SNL season premiere Saturday night.

            DETENTION HOUR
                by John W. Ellis

The golden sunlight floods the room,
      The flies wheel to and fro,
And throught he open window comes
      A hum of life below.
Three boys, before a battered desk,
      Survey with hopeless gaze
a page of algebra bestrewn
      With x’s, b’s and a’s.

Before a blackboard scribbled o’er,
      In quite a careless way,
with scraps of knowledge gathered from
      The labors of the day,
The master sits with pencil blue,
      And marks without a blench
The erring sum, the misspelt word,
      The French that is not French.

All silent sit the prisoned ones,
      Save when a far-off shout
Brings visions to their restless minds
      Of merry scenes without.
Then inky hands grasp tumbled hair,
      And, like a distant sea,
A murmuring rises through the room
      Of mystic formulae.

And so, throughout a tedious hour,
      The loud clock ticks apace,
Each youth intent upon his book
      With studious, frowning face,
remembering on yester eve
      How simple seemed each rule,
When some inviting game obscured
      The coming morrow’s school.

And now at length the captives rise,
      Each gazing on his book,
And sidle to their jailer’s seat
      Snatching one furtive look.
They stumble through the dreaded task,
      Then cast their books aside,
And speed through the deserted school
      To the glad world outside.

And now the creeping hour is past,
      The silent striving done.
Rebellious z and stubborn y
      Fly with the sinking sun;
And to the east with satchels full,
      Three scholars march with glee,
While westward, with a sober step,
      Departs the dominie.

I couldn’t find any information about this poem online. The only historical John W. Ellis I came across was the pro-slavery governor of North Carolina who lived from 1820-1861. Did he write humorous poetry that an editor would pluck up a few decades later? Hmmm. Somehow that doesn’t seem plausible, but I’m not sure.

An Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840 –1916) was an American author who did write for young readers and had many different pen names! He was also a teacher, school administrator and journalist, according to Wikipedia.

Well, if anyone knows, I’m happy to be enlightened.

I did look up a couple of words in this poem – “blench” means to shrink or flinch; a “dominie” is a schoolmaster.

Perhaps the helplessness before algebra got me, or the line that tickled me the most, “The French that is not French.” (Le français qui n'est pas français?) Ha!

Merci for visiting, and be sure to sashay over to Writing the World for Kids, where lovely Laura has this week’s Roundup.


  1. September 28, 2017 8:24 PM EDT
    Can I just say how much I love that you have a collection of late 1800s newspaper/magazines?! The poem is wonderful and I can all too easily relate to the imprisoned ones, as lovely summer weather has extended into fall here in northern New England. Unlike that dominie, my steps are far from sober as I depart each day, eager to enjoy the lingering warmth!
    - Molly Hogan
  2. September 28, 2017 8:43 PM EDT
    That dominie was the perfect ending for this fine poem. I had to giggle at;
    'How simple seemed each rule,
    When some inviting game obscured
    The coming morrow’s school.'

    And now you have me very curious about the poet!!
    - Kathryn Apel
  3. September 28, 2017 9:04 PM EDT
    Molly - Ha! Glad your steps are a bit livelier than those of our "dominie".... I love being surrounded by old books and such in my shop - though they are not safe, as I am always repurposing them for artsyletters items... But some I fall in love with and take home intact, to keep them out of harm's way. ;0)

    Hi, Kat - that line actually jumped out at me the second time I read it. What fun! (I'll add an update if I figure out Mr. Ellis - Tried Gutenberg, but didn't find anything.)
    - Robyn Black
  4. September 28, 2017 9:04 PM EDT
    Bwa ha ha ha ha ha. I think this is THE perfect poem to send to our school's detention room for students to read. I love how universal the frustration is at the slow passage of time in school! Great find.
    - Linda M.
  5. September 28, 2017 9:44 PM EDT
    Glad you enjoyed, Linda - 2017, 1897 ... 120 years and still the same sentiment! ;0)
    - Robyn Black
  6. September 29, 2017 12:04 AM EDT
    Having just spent time with my grandson and hearing him lament of his own algebraic woes, I think I shall send him this poem. Truth after over 100 years is truth indeed. I love "The erring sum, the misspelt word,/The French that is not French." C'est aussi vrai! Thanks Robyn. We have the cool of autumn this week, guess summer's done!
    - Linda Baie
  7. September 29, 2017 1:11 AM EDT
    Fun to see the algebra reemerge at the closing,
    "Rebellious z and stubborn y
    Fly with the sinking sun;"
    and the teacher "dominie" ties it all together at the closing!

    Hope the heat passes soon, Merci beaucoup!
    - Michelle Kogan
  8. September 29, 2017 9:17 AM EDT
    Merci, Linda - and sending hang-in-there vibes to your grandson. ;0) Hopefully any rebellious z's he encounters will be subdued. Enjoy a beautiful fall!

    De rien, Michelle, and that z and y just crack me up! Happy Weekend.
    - Robyn Black
  9. September 29, 2017 10:08 AM EDT
    What a lark. My favorite line was the same as your, "The French that is not French". The whole poem rings with joie de vivre, so you know the author must have been the schoolboy in detention not the dominie, so blithe and blench-less. LOL
    - Brenda
  10. September 29, 2017 11:20 AM EDT
    Hi, Brenda - "blench-less" - ha! Thanks for coming over and spreading a little of that joie....
    - Robyn Black
  11. September 29, 2017 1:10 PM EDT
    I also laughed at the line "French that is not French." It sounds so much like my studies of French. Needless to say I didn't get very far. Hopefully I'll do better with my current Spanish studies. Thanks for sharing this fun poem!
    - Kay Jernigan McGriff
  12. September 29, 2017 1:15 PM EDT
    Hi, Kay - I loved French back in high school and college, but I'm quite sure there would be a huge gap in communication with any real Frenchman (or Frenchwoman!) I might encounter. Good for you for pursuing Spanish... it's on my list for one of these days.
    - Robyn Black
  13. September 29, 2017 1:30 PM EDT
    Fun poem! Would be nice if we could learn more about who this mysterious poet is!
    - Matt Forrest Esenwine
  14. September 29, 2017 1:36 PM EDT
    My favorite line is the same as yours—"The French that is not French" made me laugh. And the humor in this poem is timeless!
    - Penny Parker Klostermann
  15. September 29, 2017 3:06 PM EDT
    I absolutely used to blench when someone mentioned Algebra! I love the incredible vocabulary that poetry introduces me to.

    We had an absolute scorcher here yesterday, but alas the rain is back again in earnest, and likely here to stay!
    - Jane the Raincity Librarian
  16. September 29, 2017 4:11 PM EDT
    "All silent sit the prisoned ones" sent me right down Alice's rabbit hole. This is a guffaw-inducing poem, if ever there was one. (My hound blenched at my boisterous snorts, his frightened look was my retort.)
    - Buffy Silverman
  17. September 29, 2017 4:43 PM EDT
    Great pick, Robyn!
    I wonder if that dominie was a little worn out by the end himself? Maybe he didn't actually *want* to stay after? Perhaps he secretly wanted to pick flowers and go fishing? Guess we'll never know...
    - Tabatha
  18. September 29, 2017 5:03 PM EDT
    Hi, Matt - I'm keeping my antennae up! ;0) Thanks for swinging by.

    Penny, you have such a terrific sense of humor, I'm "honored" we both fell out with the same line!

    Hi, Jane - Ha! Me too. And then, trigonometry....
    Maybe the rainy season out there should be re-dubbed the "stay-inside-and-sip-tea-and-read" season. ?

    Buffy, you are a hoot. Gotta love poetry that perks up the family pup as well as the shorting, retorting lady of the house.

    Howdy, Tabatha - I think you must certainly be right! If he wasn't rolling his eyes at his charges and his own captivity, surely an eyebrow was raised.
    - Robyn Black
  19. September 29, 2017 5:21 PM EDT
    Oh, some new words today! Quite like "dominie." And what fun to hear a poem from so long ago. Refreshing to read some old fashioned lore. :)Thanks for sharing!
    - jama
  20. September 29, 2017 9:39 PM EDT
    Thanks for coming by, Jama! I love learning new (old) words. Though Heidi's word in her abecedarian takes the cake, I think... quaquaversal!
    - Robyn Black
  21. September 30, 2017 7:01 AM EDT
    Now we're talking OLD school! What a fun (not for them) blast from the past. Not sure I like the term "dominie"...I'm for something more like "role model-ie"!!
    - Mary Lee
  22. September 30, 2017 9:09 AM EDT
    Mary Lee - definitely OLD school - ha! (And I know re. "dominie" - I was a little apprehensive looking it up... sounds somewhat unsavory!)
    - Robyn Black
  23. September 30, 2017 10:29 AM EDT
    "Rebellious z and stubborn y
    Fly with the sinking sun;"

    I just love algebra's part in this poem, Robyn! Thanks for sharing it:>)
    - Laura Purdie Salas
  24. September 30, 2017 3:58 PM EDT
    I'm always amazed by your finds. Quite comical indeed! The history behind this treasure is an extra bonus.
    - Kiesha Shepard
  25. September 30, 2017 4:10 PM EDT
    And so, throughout a tedious hour,
    The loud clock ticks apace

    It's not just classrooms where tedious hours are endured. I've sat through many a meeting at work that has made me feel like a captive!
    - Diane Mayr
  26. September 30, 2017 10:00 PM EDT
    Laura - me tooo! Thanks so much for hosting this week. :0)

    Hi, Kiesha - Thanks. I didn't quite know how much I needed a little humor until I stumbled on this one! A good chuckle never goes out of style.

    Good point, Diane - I must say that's one thing I love about being self-employed. Not the paycheck so much, but no silly, tedious meetings! ;0) [Well, maybe a business owner's meeting now and then.]
    - Robyn Black
  27. September 30, 2017 10:18 PM EDT
    Robyn, school life in the "old" days was so different than today. I had a collection of newspapers from the early 1900s for students to peruse so I loved that you pulled one out. Stanza 2 captured my interest, especially that the teacher used a blue marker not red. That leads me to wonder when the red pencil became such a favorite teacher tool.
    - Carol Varsalona
  28. September 30, 2017 10:23 PM EDT
    Carol, thanks so much for coming over! And, I noticed that too - maybe a historical tidbit we will have to pursue? Blue to red? Curious...!
    - Robyn Black
  29. October 1, 2017 7:39 AM EDT
    What's funny to me about this is that it would only be funny to dominies and parents--not to girls and boys, I wouldn't think. Good find! I would love to have a reason to browse old books and magazines for artful purposes. Maybe someday....
    The Captcha below says "ROUL WALMART" !
    - Heidi Mordhorst
  30. October 1, 2017 5:09 PM EDT
    True, Heidi - those kids would just want O-U-T! ;0) I keep toying with poetic ideas for those Captcha words - I got some real good ones myself this week. Thanks for popping in!
    - Robyn Black
  31. October 1, 2017 6:01 PM EDT
    "And now at length the captives rise,
    Each gazing on his book,
    And sidle to their jailer’s seat
    Snatching one furtive look." OH MY! This post made me laugh so hard, but how dreadful, right?! -- Christie @
    - Christie Wyman
  32. October 1, 2017 9:22 PM EDT
    I loved the line The French that is not French, too. And the two words you looked up are new to me, too. I envy you your stack of old newspapers! I'm sure they're a rich source of poetry/writing ideas.
    - Carmela Martino
  33. October 1, 2017 9:32 PM EDT
    Hi, Christie - so glad to add a laugh to your weekend! And, dreadful is a good word... ;0)

    Carmela, thanks for coming by - :0) Some days I get completely lost in all the old newspapers and books in my studio. Happily lost!
    - Robyn Black
  34. October 5, 2017 11:38 AM EDT
    "The French that is not French" ha ha ha!! Great find, Robyn.
    - Laura Shovan
  35. October 5, 2017 3:10 PM EDT
    Why, Merci, mon ami! :0)
    - Robyn Black

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