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Field claimed two birthdays, September 2 and September 3, telling friends if they forgot him on the first date, they could remember him on the second. Field is best known for his humorous, often sardonic poetry for children, like “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.”
Field’s mother died when he was six and his father sent him and his brother to Amherst, Massachusetts, to be raised by a cousin. Field was an exuberant, prankish boy who enjoyed whimsy. He had five chickens in Amherst and named them Winniken, Minniken, Finniken, Boog, and Poog. Fields had no patience for school and spent his youth in and out of boarding schools. He attended four colleges, studying acting and the law, without any success. His father died, leaving Field a small inheritance, which he spent every penny of during six months in Europe.
By 1875, he was back in Missouri, writing for the Saint Joseph Gazette. He fell in love with a 14-year-old girl. When the girl’s father said she was too young to marry, Field replied, “She’ll grow out of it.” They married when she was 16, instead, and had eight children. For the rest of his life, whatever money he earned, he directed it be sent to his wife, because he knew he would spend it frivolously.
Field wrote for newspapers in Kansas City and Denver before settling down in Chicago and writing a humorous column called “Sharps and Flats” for the Chicago Daily News, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. “Sharps and Flats” ran in the morning edition and featured Field’s cutting quips and observations about Chicago, which he called “Porkopolis,” because of its rampant materialism. He enjoyed comparing Chicago to Boston, once writing, “While Chicago is humping herself in the interests of literature, arts, and the sciences, vain old Boston is frivoling away her precious time in an attempted renaissance of the cod fisheries.”
Field enjoyed teasing children, often making faces at them when adults turned their backs. The whimsical, somewhat mean-spirited humor in his book The Tribune Primer (1881) – which suggested that children pat wasps, eat wormy apples, and put mud in a baby’s ears – became sweeter and more nostalgic, as he aged. In “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” a bedtime story, three children sail and fish among the stars from a boat that is a wooden shoe. The little fishermen symbolize a sleepy child’s blinking eyes and nodding head. The poem became an immensely popular fixture in the cultural lexicon. In the 1960s and ’70s, musicians like Cass Elliott, Donovan, and The Doobie Brothers all sang versions of the song, and in an early version of Lou Reed’s song “Satellite of Love,” the names “Harry, Mark, and John” are sung as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”
The three smokestacks at the Lansing Board of Water & Light in Lansing, Michigan, are known locally as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”
The popular video game Pac-Man (1980) features four ghosts to be avoided. Their names, “Blinky,” “Inky,” “Pinky,” and “Clyde,” are homage to Field’s poem.
Field’s poetry became a staple of school primers throughout the 20th century. More than 30 elementary schools in the Midwest and Southwest are named for him. About reading, he said: “All good and true book-lovers practice the pleasing and improving avocation of reading in bed […] No book can be appreciated until it has been slept with and dreamed over.”
Wynken, Blinken and Nod
by Eugene Field
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,-
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,-
Never afraid are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,-
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:-
“Wynken, Blinken and Nod” by Eugene Field. Public Domain