I have published a number of poems from the nineteenth century children’s magazines Harper’s Young People and Harper’s Round Table. The poems are always charming, but seldom do they defy my expectations. As I read “Helping Himself To Cake” by a certain “M.E.” in the March 2, 1880 issue of Harper’s Young People, I found myself a bit confused. The star of the poem is a girl named Madeline who fell asleep with a slice of cake in one hand. Why then was the title of the poem Helping Himself to Cake? Was there a typo in Harper’s or by whoever prepared the magazine for Project Gutenberg? It turned out that there was no error at all. In fact, had I looked a bit closer at the etching that accompanied the poem, I would have discerned the identity of “him” quickly.
Below, you will find the original illustration for the poem followed by the poem as it appeared in Harper’s (note: I ailigned the poem left instead of right, but kept the same indentation structure). If you are so inclined, see if you can succeed where I failed in figuring out what is happening in Hepling Himself To Cake from the image before you begin reading.
“Helping Himself to Cale” by M.E. (1880)
Fast asleep fell Madeline, Fairy-book held in one hand, In the other slice of cake— Slept, and drifted to the land Where the spirits of the dreams Many wondrous visions keep— Visions that are only seen When the eyes are closed in sleep. Dreamed the little Madeline That she was a princess fair, Beautiful as that proud maid Famous for her golden hair. And at splendid feast she sat, And a prince sat by her side, Handsome as the prince who won "Sleeping Beauty" for his bride; Dreamed a cake—a wedding cake— She dispensed to courtly throng, Cutting it with knife of gold, While the "Blue Bird" sang a song. Largest piece received the prince, And he whispered, "This is bliss," As he kissed her hand and gave Ring of diamond with the kiss. But ere long the dream grew dim, Feast and courtiers vanished quite, Diamond ring and lover too Softly faded from her sight; And the only prince she saw (She was once more wide-awake) Was a little prince of mice Nibbling at her slice of cake.