Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he was raised by a cousin, Mary Field French, in Amherst, Massachusetts, after the death of his mother in 1856.
Field's father, attorney Roswell Martin Field, was famous for his representation of Dred Scott, the slave who sued for his freedom. Field filed the complaint in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case (sometimes referred to as "the lawsuit that started the Civil War") on behalf of Scott in the federal court in St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Field attended several colleges, tried acting, studied law with little success, and also wrote for the student newspaper. He then went on a trip through Europe but returned to the United States six months later, penniless.
Field then set to work as a journalist for the St. Joseph Gazette in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1875. That same year he married Julia Comstock, with whom he had eight children. For the rest of his life he arranged for all the money he earned to be sent to his wife, saying that he had no head for money himself.
Field first started publishing poetry in 1879, when his poem "Christmas Treasures" appeared in A Little Book of Western Verse. Over a dozen volumes of poetry followed and he became well known for his poems for children, among the most famous of which are "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" and "The Duel" (which is perhaps better known as "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat").
Field died in Chicago of a heart attack at the age of 45. His legacy - in addition to his poems and stories - includes several of his poems that were set to music with commercial success. Many of his works were accompanied by paintings from Maxfield Parrish.
Below are six poems that Sophia and Olivia listened to, and their reactions to each one.
Once on a time an old red hen
Went strutting 'round with pompous clucks,
For she had little babies ten,
A part of which were tiny ducks.
"Tis very rare that hens," said she,
"Have baby ducks as well as chicks--
But I possess, as you can see,
Of chickens four and ducklings six!"
A season later, this old hen
Appeared, still cackling of her luck,
For, though she boasted babies ten,
Not one among them was a duck!
"'Tis well," she murmured, brooding o'er
The little chicks of fleecy down--
"My babies now will stay ashore,
And, consequently, cannot drown!"
The following spring the old red hen
Clucked just as proudly as of yore--
But lo! her babes were ducklings ten,
Instead of chickens, as before!
"'Tis better," said the old red hen,
As she surveyed her waddling brood;
"A little water now and then
Will surely do my darlings good!"
But oh! alas, how very sad!
When gentle spring rolled round again
The eggs eventuated bad,
And childless was the old red hen!
Yet patiently she bore her woe,
And still she wore a cheerful air,
And said: "'Tis best these things are so,
For babies are a dreadful care!"
I half suspect that many men,
And many, many women, too,
Could learn a lesson from the hen
With foliage of vermilion hue;
She ne'er presumed to take offence
At any fate that might befall,
But meekly bowed to Providence--
She was contented--that was all!
Sophia thought: I liked this one. It just seemed different than what we have heard before. Like it was a a different style than other poems we've heard. You had to listen kind of carefully and it was kind of hard to understand in some parts. I liked the hen and her chicks and ducks because it's a cute story.
Olivia thought: They used the word "tis" a lot. It kind of didn't make a whole lot of sense with the chicks and ducks. The mother sounded like she was full of herself. It was a good poem, but it was different from other poems because it was more like a story.
The Rockaby Lady From Hushabye Street
The Rock-a-By Lady from Hushaby street
Comes stealing; comes creeping;
The poppies they hang from her head to her feet,
And each hath a dream that is tiny and fleet
She bringeth her poppies to you, my sweet,
When she findeth you sleeping!
There is one little dream of a beautiful drum
"Rub-a-dub!" it goeth;
There is one little dream of a big sugar-plum,
And lo! thick and fast the other dreams come
Of popguns that bang, and tin tops that hum,
And a trumpet that bloweth!
And dollies peep out of those wee little dreams
With laughter and singing;
And boats go a-floating on silvery streams,
And the stars peek-a-boo with their own misty gleams,
And up, up, and up, where the Mother Moon beams,
The fairies go winging!
Would you dream all these dreams that are tiny and fleet?
They'll come to you sleeping;
So shut the two eyes that are weary, my sweet,
For the Rock-a-By Lady from Hushaby street,
With poppies that hang from her head to her feet,
Comes stealing; comes creeping.
Sophia thought: The title and beginning part sounds like a nursery rhyme. I think I like this one because it's a sweet and dreamy. When she talks about the lady from Hushaby street, it reminds me of Mother Goose.
Olivia thought: It was creepy and confusing. The beginning and end was kind of strange. It was talking about a lady who stole puppies. ("Oh no! Olivia...it's 'poppies' - the flowers...not 'puppies.' No wonder it sounded rather creepy.") It still is very confusing. I think I liked the first poem better.
(Note: Pronounce "Yooooo" as "You" and drag it out a bit to add a bit of "drama" to it. Doing this also seemed to get our puppy, Cooper, pretty worked up.)
Have you ever heard the wind go "Yooooo"?
'Tis a pitiful sound to hear!
It seems to chill you through and through
With a strange and speechless fear.
'Tis the voice of the night that broods outside
When folks should be asleep,
And many and many's the time I've cried
To the darkness brooding far and wide
Over the land and the deep:
"Whom do you want, O lonely night,
That you wail the long hours through?"
And the night would say in its ghostly way:
Mother told me long ago
(When I was a little tad)
That when the night went wailing so,
Somebody had been bad;
Then, when I was snug in bed,
Whither I had been sent,
With the blankets pulled up round my head,
I'd think of what my mother'd said,
And wonder what boy she meant!
And "Who's been bad today?" I'd ask
Of the wind that hoarsely blew,
And the voice would say in its meaningful way.
That this was true I must allow
You'll not believe it, though!
Yes, though I'm quite a model now,
I was not always so.
And if you doubt what things I say,
Suppose you make the test;
Suppose, when you've been bad some day
And up to bed are sent away
From mother and the rest
Suppose you ask, " Who has been bad?"
And then you'll hear what's true;
For the wind will moan in its ruefulest tone:
Sophia thought: Cooper likes it. He's mimicking it. This one is kind of like the stories that parents tell to kids to make them behave themselves. I like the title of the poem, but it doesn't seem to go with the poem.
Olivia thought: That story is downright creepy. It's like he's into the downright creepy scenario thing! I like the title of the poem.
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 that beautiful sea---
"Now cast your nets wherever you wish---
Never afeard 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;
'T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
As if it could not be,
And some folks thought 't was 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:
Sophia thought: It reminded me a little about the Owl and the Pussycat. I got distracted and excited about the part about the "crystal light." The names are interesting because you don't hear them used. When I heard of Wynken, Blynken and Nod I think of bright colors.
Olivia thought: It was interesting. I liked the part about sailing in a wooden shoe. They fish for stars. How is that possible?
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor the other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn't there; I simply state
What was told me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went "bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "mee-ow!"
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I'm only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, "Oh, dear! what shall we do?"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw--
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don't fancy I exaggerate!
I got my news from the Chinese plate!)
Next morning, where the two had sat,
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)
Sophia thought: I didn't really like that one because it wasn't the exactly the cheeriest poem ever. It was kind of sad at the end because they ate each other up.
Olivia thought: The person who is talking sounded like a fork, spoon, or plate. They plate didn't sound terribly upset that the dog ate the cat...and the cat ate the dog. I liked when the cat and dog were staring at each other.
The Ride to Bumpville
Play that my knee was a calico mare
Saddled and bridled for Bumpville;
Leap to the back of this steed if you dare,
And gallop away to Bumpville!
I hope you'll be sure to sit fast in your seat,
For this calico mare is prodigiously fleet,
And many adventures you're likely to meet
As you journey along to Bumpville.
This calico mare both gallops and trots
While whisking you off to Bumpville;
She paces, she shies, and she stumbles, in spots,
In the tortuous road to Bumpville;
And sometimes this strangely mercurial steed
Will suddenly stop and refuse to proceed,
Which, all will admit, is vexatious indeed,
When one is en route to Bumpville!
She's scared of the cars when the engine goes "Toot!"
Down by the crossing at Bumpville;
You'd better look out for that treacherous brute
Bearing you off to Bumpville!
With a snort she rears up on her hindermost heels,
And executes jigs and Virginia reels--
Words fail to explain how embarrassed one feels
Dancing so wildly to Bumpville!
It's bumpytybump and it's jiggityjog,
Journeying on to Bumpville;
It's over the hilltop and down through the bog
You ride on your way to Bumpville;
It's rattletybang over boulder and stump,
There are rivers to ford, there are fences to jump,
And the corduroy road it goes bumpytybump,
Mile after mile to Bumpville!
Perhaps you'll observe it's no easy thing
Making the journey to Bumpville,
So I think, on the whole, it were prudent to bring
An end to this ride to Bumpville;
For, though she has uttered no protest or plaint,
The calico mare must be blowing and faint-
What's more to the point, I'm blowed if I ain't!
So play we have got to Bumpville!
Sophia thought: He said "Bumpville" a lot. It reminded me a little like a Dr. Seuss book because it kind of had that "bounce" to it. Is there such a thing as a calico horse? (We found out there can be, but it's rare. It's when a horse has multiple patches of bright colors...kind of like a calico cat.)
Olivia thought: It was strange. Probably something you don't usually hear. It sounded like he said "Bumpville" about a hundred times. It sounded like they were going on a trip or field trip.
We talked about how when they were young (infant- to toddler-age), we use to do "horse rides" with them sitting on my knee...almost just like how is described in this poem.
So, even though they are much older, they thought it would be fun for me to read the poem and for them to act it out. They laughed a lot as they brought to life this poem. Afterwards, this is what they said - between lots of laughs:
Sophia thought: It was exhausting. Olivia's not that light. It's not something we do everyday. It was fun! You're on your own now. This calico mare is all tired out!
Olivia thought: It was interesting and fun, but Sophia's legs should be tied together. I didn't have any place to hold onto! She kept tossing me off!