What Are Little Girls and Boys Made of? Robert Southey’s Advice to The Brontë Sisters

The famous children’s rhyme, What All the World Is Made Of, is the handiwork of Robert Southey, one of the great English poets (1774–1843). For reasons that will strike most parents as obvious, the most famous eight lines are extracted from the original 44 lines. The problem is not their eternal cuteness but a suggestion that even Victorian children were subject to a pre-woke gender comparison. Nothing could be further from the truth. One has to read the whole poem to understand Southey was only painting a charming tableau, not drawing grafitti. See the last four lines of the whole poem, “What Folks Are Made Of.”

Here is the short version we all know:

What are little boys made of
What are little boys made of
Snips and snails & puppy dogs tails
And such are little boys made of.
What are young women made of
Sugar and spice and all things nice

What All the World Is Made Of

What are little babies made of, made of?
What are little babies made of?
Diapers and crumbs and sucking their thumbs;
That’s what little babies are made of?

What are little boys made of, made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy-dog tails;
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of, made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and everything nice;
That’s what little girls are made of.

What are young men made of, made of?
What are young men made of?
Sighs and leers and crocodile tears;
That’s what young men are made of.

What are young women made of, made of?
What are young women made of?
Rings and jings and other fine things;
That’s what young women are made of.

What are our sailors made of, made of?
What are our sailors made of?
Pitch and tar, pig-tail and scar;
That’s what our sailors are made of.

What are our soldiers made of, made of?
What are our soldiers made of?
Pipeclay and drill, the foeman to kill;
That’s what our soldiers are made of.

What are our nurses made of, made of?
What are our nurses made of?
Bushes and thorns and old cow’s horns;
That’s what our nurses are made of.

What are our fathers made of, made of?
What are our fathers made of?
Pipes and smoke and collars choke;
That’s what our fathers are made of.

What are our mothers made of, made of?
What are our mothers made of?
Ribbons and laces and sweet pretty faces;
That’s what our mothers are made of.

What are old men made of, made of?
What are old men made of?
Slippers that flop and a bald-headed top;
That’s what old men are made of.

What are old women made of, made of?
What are old women made of?
Reels, and jeels, and old spinning wheels;
That’s what old women are made of?

What are all folks made of, made of?
What are all folks made of?
Fighting a spot and loving a lot,
That’s what all folks are made of.

Woke and Women’s Work

Robert Southey (1774–1843)

All fans of late Victorian19th century literature know that the Brontë sisters wrote under male pen names of Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell before they rose to fame. In her memoirs, Charlotte admits the problem was gender: ‘We did not like to declare ourselves women because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’

Although the Brontë sisters wrote their first book of poetry in early childhood, they yearned to write about real life, love, and sadness. That was the problem. Women’s stuff was sugar and spice and everything nice. Charlotte thought this was silly, so she reached out to the man who coined the phrase. He was the poet laureate, Robert Southey. He offered her a word of congratulations and a bit of wisdom the Brontë sister wisely discarded.

Her letter was sent on 29 December 1836. Southey replied in two fashions. Before we examine his response, please consider that he was born before the American Revolution and associated with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, known as the three lake poets (Southey served from 1813 until he died in 1843 followed by Wordsworth).

Southey’s letter to Charlotte Brontë was warm and congratulatory: “You evidently possess & in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls “the faculty of verse….” But then he shifts gears and knocks her off the pedestal: “There is a danger of which I would with all kindness & earnestness warn you. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it. To those duties, you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for imagination for excitement.”

The reaction of many who read this is understandable — yet misguided. Southey was a man of his day like all of us are. He could not in good conscience for the time recommend women enter a life of literature. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s thought nothing of throwing trash out the car window or running the air conditioning (if you could afford it) in winter, so it became necessary to light the fireplace. Were we environmental disasters? No, just people waiting to evolve. Southey had not yet evolved, and as women’s suffrage would not occur in England until 1918 (similarly in the United States), he cannot be faulted too much.

Southey believed that women were by nature destined for a life of home, husband, children, and marriage. To Southey, it meant Charlotte would no longer desire to write poetry. This explains why his letter was pessimistic about her life as a poet but complimentary of her poem. As we shall see, this distinction was going to matter.

Charlotte wrote back to Southey, “I had not ventured to hope for such a reply; so considerate in its tone, so noble in its spirit. I must suppress what I feel, or you will think me foolishly enthusiastic. Then she added as a postscript that his advice was ‘To be kept forever.’” It was clear that not only was she not dissuaded from literary life, but she was hardly taken aback by his suggestion. Like someone in the 1960s telling a woman she could not become an astronaut because it hadn't yet happened. Charlotte ignored the advice but took the compliment for the inspiration that it was intended to be.

The Brontë children lost their parents quite young and spent all their free time (with their brother Bramwell) writing stories. In May 1846, the sisters published a volume of poetry using male pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell.

Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’ and Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ were published in 1847. ‘Jane Eyre’ was one of the year’s best sellers. Anne’s second novel, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ was published in 1848. ‘The Tenant’ sold well, but ‘Wuthering Heights’ did not.

Branwell died of tuberculosis in September 1848. Emily died of the same disease on 19 December 1848 and Anne on 28 May 1849.

Charlotte, by now a well-known author, died several years later of tuberculosis in March 1855.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes