A. A. Milne – World’s Saddest Satirist

Alan Alexander Milne is well known for writing witty plays, earnest essays and children’s poems. His children’s stories, for which he is best known, were thought “charming” and “insightful.”

What is not well known is that Milne began his writing career as an assistant editor for Punch Magazine, London’s premiere satirical journal. While on military leave from Punch, he wrote his first book-length satire called Once on a Time. Under the guise of a straight-forward fairy tale, Milne makes fun of David Lloyd George, Henry Asquith (as well as Asquith’s wife Margot and daughter Violet), Hilaire Belloc and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Bavaria. Apparently readers in general were slow to catch the humor and Milne refused to come out directly and state that it was a parody. One thing he did state was that it was not a “children’s book,” which was to say that he “wrote it for grown-ups.” Regardless, Once on a Time did not fare well.

In all my research, the most telling quote from A. A. Milne was the following:

    “I hate writing; by which I mean that I hate the business of putting down words with a pen. Unless I can get some sort of ‘kick’ out of them I can hardly bring myself to the drudgery of inking them in.”

As a child, Alan was precocious; as a student editor and writer of light verse he was sharp-witted; as assistant editor at Punch his dazzling wit was wildly popular. He loved being in the limelight as the brilliant and clever playwright whose opening nights drew huge crowds. His wife Daphne craved the allure of being married to a celebrity. For A. A. Milne, it was all about affirmation – his Punch articles were reprinted in four volumes:

    The Day’s Play (1910)
    The Holiday Round (1912)
    Once a Week (1914)
    The Sunny Side (1921)

and those four were then compiled into a single volume in 1929. His plays were performed on both sides of the Atlantic, in addition to being published in their own right, both singly and in collections.

The children’s poems were somewhat of a lark, evolving from one verse called Vespers written for his wife in a facetious vein. Throughout his career, Milne dabbled in writing light verse, but it was never his ambition to become a so-called children’s poet, as he stated in his Autobiography:

When We Were Very Young is not the work of a poet becoming playful, nor of a lover of children expressing his love, nor of a prose-writer knocking together a few jingles for the little ones; it is the work of a light-verse writer taking his job seriously even though he is taking it into the nursery…”

The project was manipulated for its appeal to children (and parents) by editors and publishers who saw great potential for sales. No doubt Daphne was a driving force, encouraging him to exploit this talent for financial gain.

Sometime, somewhere along the way, the germ of an idea came into Milne’s mind – what about a satire of Winston Churchill in which his “poohbah” characteristics are parodied as a “pooh bear?” Regardless of how it came about, we can be sure that Milne got a great kick out of making fun of such a well-known politician. The story was crafted not because he disliked Churchill but because Churchill was such an easy mark.

When no one seemed to catch the humor, Milne wrote a second story with more blatant wordplay implicating Churchill and even had an illustrator draw the bear with unmistakably Churchillian traits. At this point, however, the editors and publishers took stock of how Milne’s stories were appealing to the children’s market and quickly suppressed the Churchill connection. He may have been reminded that his other political satire, Once on a Time, had flopped. This did not stop Milne from using Churchill as the inspiration for his characters and events, but in the end (again at Daphne’s urging) he gave in to the almighty dollar (or rather, pound). Affirmation came only in the form of money and in praise for his talents as a “children’s writer.’ But that was not what Alan Milne wanted to be known for. At the end of his life, he was described as sad, bitter and disenchanted. Perhaps now we understand better the reasons for his dissatisfaction and frustration at never having his most brilliant satire, Winnie-the-Pooh, recognized for what it was.