Howard Pyle’s The Wonder Clock

Howard Pyle’s The Wonder Clock (1887), a collection of folk tales and fairy tales with illustrations that depict the various scenes of a twenty-four period in a typical home of the time, organizes the stories according to the hours of the day beginning at 1:00 p.m.

One O’Clock

One of the Clock, and silence deep
Then up the Stairway, black and steep
The old House-Cat comes creepy-creep
With soft feet goes from room to room
Her green eyes shining through the gloom
And finds all fast asleep.

The setting of the stories is a household which provides domestic comforts, simple pleasures, and a variety of sources of contentment all on a modest scale. Even the hour of one o’clock in the morning is not devoid of its exquisite moments and special sense of peacefulness. The gleaming green eyes of the cat and its feline movements punctuate the darkness with a beautiful light and a natural movement that is reassuring of a familiar, human world which always feels like home. Two o’clock in the darkness also is not dreary darkness or lifeless immobility, for a black bird crows, and a red cock answers as the moon shines brightly. The universe is not a cold, impersonal place. Inside the home Gretchen “Turned in bed, /And tossed her arms/Above her head” as the dog stretches: “And, breathing deep, / He settled down/ Again to sleep.” So Gretchen and the hound, turning and stretching, settle into their favorite positions and enjoy the sweetness of sleep in the cozy snugness of home. In the dead of night at three o’clock the rooms are feeling cold as the ashes in the fireplace die, but life goes on even in darkness and sleep: “The Board-Floor creaked,/ The Grey-Mouse squeaked,/ And the Kobold dreamed its ear he tweaked.” There is never a lack of activity, a sound of life, a touch of humor, or something happening in this world of the home, even though the busyness of the day has passed and the time of rest has arrived. Floors creaking, creatures stirring, sleepers dreaming, fires glowing—the night-time realm stirs with its own round of normal business and brims with its own unique sounds, sights, and movements. Every hour has its pleasure, and both night and day offer appetizing, welcoming delights. This is the poetry of the home, the song of daily life in its ordinary rounds around the clock.

In The Wonder Clock each of these simple pleasures is savored as something delicious to enjoy, something inviting to anticipate with delight, or something comical to relish for a joke. At five o’clock in the morning the maid Gretchen stumbles down the stairs freezing “And pokes the fire with a frown,” complaining “Plague on the fire!” In the meantime the master of the household abruptly jumps out of bed: “Wife, Wife, it’s five o’clock!” Every day brings its humor and its share of mischievousness, the character of the Kobold (goblin) playing the part of the impish child who blew the ashes in the maid’s eyes at five o’clock and later “Peeped in every pot and pail, / And grinned, and pulled the Pussy’s tail.” These normal interruptions and antics and the everyday accidents (Gretchen breaks a cup while washing dishes) are the diversions that prohibit life from assuming a rigid, inhuman order that has no room for laughter and lightheartedness. The beginning of a new day at six o’clock brings cheer and hope: “The Door is open, / The Dew is bright; / Forgotten now is the lonesome Night, / And the Starling whistles, ‘All is right.’”   The welcome sight of breakfast—bread, honey, eggs, and cream—whet the appetite as the taste of wholesome food testifies to the goodness of God’s creation that abounds in the variety of pleasures each day brings. By seven o’clock in the morning the revelry of children’s play fills the house (“Around, / Around and about, / The Kobold played in and out”), and children frolic on their way to school “With hop and jump, / By hedge and stump.” Laughing, playing, eating, learning—no hour of the day is without its accompanying pleasure, and the course of the day—the clock of wonder—is an invitation to partake of the abundance of God’s plenty. The poetry of the home is never without a pleasure, laugh, or song, day or night.

While the children learn deportment and obedience at school where the schoolmaster disciplines them to “walk by Rule, / And bow before they leave the School,” the heartwarming, civilizing amenities of domestic life prepare the riches of hospitality for the homecoming at noon and at the end of the day: “They’re baking Pies at Home,” and Gretchen the maid prepares a special treat as she “takes Some dough, and makes, /For little John, a Saucer Pie.” Now the beds are made, and the dishes and pots are washed and placed “Out in the pleasant Sun to dry.” Working in one’s own home, performing the domestic chores for the beloved persons in one’s life, cooking nutritious meals as an act of love, and appreciating the beautiful weather all lend a magical aura to the day. There is not only the excitement of the beginning of a new morning but also the expectation of special refreshments during the course of the day. By eleven o’clock the pies have been taken out of the oven, and the irresistible, tantalizing smells of home cooking and sweet pies linger in the air, transforming the kitchen into a paradise. The Kobold licks his lips as his “glistening eyes” yearn for the feast that noontime brings when “The Bread is cut, the Soup is hot, / The cabbage simmers in the pot” as Gretchen fills the beer mugs from the cellar, “cool and brown.” The menial tasks and ordinary, humble work of life do not have to be tedious, drab, or humdrum. A pie in the oven, a home-made brew, a joking spirit, a sunny day, and a hospitable home lift the quality of everyday existence from the prosaic to the poetic.

The afternoon and evening hours continue this theme of looking forward to each and every hour of the day for the satisfaction of completing some duty, for the gratification of some pleasure, for the diversions provided by kobolds, children, and animals, and for the variety of the gifts and blessings a day brings. Whether it is seeing Johnie play ball, seeing the cat sleeping in the sun, watching the kitten finding a mice hole at 5:00, celebrating the end of work with tea at 6:00, hearing the children shout and play at 7:00, or snuggling the children in bed by 8:00 and looking forward to the sweetness of a good night’s rest at 9:00—this ordinary, unspectacular day abounds in the quiet, natural, universal joys of domestic life that comprise riches and wonders. Deep peacefulness, a rhythmic pace of life, the balance of work and play, and a natural innocence govern this way of life. All throughout the day there is the steady reminder that “all is right.” At one o’clock in the night the cat finds “all fast asleep”; at two o’clock in the night, the old hound stretches and “settled down again to sleep”; at three o’clock in the night the Kobold dreams and smiles in his sleep, and at four o’clock he awakes, sighs, “And turned upon his other side.” No one is restless or troubled at night. All during the day there is the joy of meaningful, rewarding work. At 10 o’clock the beds are made; at 5:00 o’clock the milking is done. At 8:00 o’clock “The plays are done, / And the prayers are said, / And the Children are snugly/ Tucked in bed.” One completes the day with a clean conscience about fulfilling the day’s obligations. Hearing the sighing of the wind and the clock saying “tick-a-tock” gives further reassurance of the tranquility of a life lived in tune with nature and God which inspires the poetry of the home and hearth.

When all are wrapped in Slumbers sleep,
About the house, with stealthy Tread,
With flowered Gown, and night-capped Head,
Dame Margery goes, in Stocking Feet.
She stops and listens at the Doors;
She sees that everything is right,
And safe, and quiet for the Night,
Then goes to Bed, and sleeps, and snores.

Although depicting an agricultural society in the late nineteenth century, The Wonder Clock illuminates important universal truths about the human condition: human happiness is the sum of little things or ordinary pleasures from a hearty home-cooked meal to an honest day’s work to a refreshing night of sleep; the art of living entails always looking forward to some simple, innocent pleasure of each day to enrich and renew the spirit; contentment follows from living in tune with nature and God, in accordance with nature’s rhythms—the “wonder clock” of the universe; the domestic life in a family is the most comical of places, a world of play, mirth, laughter, and lightheartedness epitomized in the bright eyes of the Kobold who chases the goose, blows the ashes in the maid’s eyes, peeps in every pot and pail, pulls the cat’s tail, pries into the cupboard, and hops across the floor; culture begins in the home where one learns to appreciate the wealth of blessings each day provides, which each hour of the clock announces. The Wonder Clock teaches that each day is a gift and each hour of the day a glimpse into the goodness and beauty of creation in both its homespun simplicity and in its surprising variety and rich goodness. The world of the home in its wonder clock of varied delights and joys provides inexhaustible sources for the poetry of the home that contemplates God’s infinite goodness. In Emily Dickinson’s words, “Eden is that old-fashioned House we dwell in every day.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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