Who Was Alan Alexander Milne?

A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh (Howard Coster, 1926).

A.A. Milne was much more than a children's author. The American Heritage Dictionary (1971 edition) describes him thus: "Milne...A(lan) A(lexander), 1882-1956. English author of children's books, novels, plays and poems." Yet even this statement hardly summarizes the man or even the writer, for A.A. Milne won considerable fame and fortune long before he started writing the first of the "Pooh Books", the book of poems called When We Were Very Young.

Alan Alexander Milne (b. January 18, 1882) was the son of John Vine (J. V.) Milne, a dedicated and talented schoolmaster, and Maria Milne, herself a highly competent and talented woman and dedicated Victorian mother. Alan had two brothers, David Barrett (the oldest, generally called Barry) and Kenneth John (Ken). Alan was the youngest (and most precocious) of the three. As he said of himself years later, "In Papa's house it was natural to be interested; it was easy to be clever." Later, Alan would attend classes in the school administered by his father, and be taught there by none other than H. G. Wells (who later wrote The War of the Worlds, among many other works).

Alan's childhood was a happy one, and he was particularly close to his father and his brother Ken. (Much of Alan's childhood -- not only his own son Christopher's -- is reflected in his books of children's poetry, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.) He excelled at mathematics and cricket, loved butterflies, hated killing animals, loved going on walks and adventures by himself or with Ken, and was an enthusiastic student of almost everything presented to him (except French). He also showed an early talent for writing, as did Ken, and the two collaborated at times on articles (and later, on poems).

A.A. Milne's biographer, Ann Thwaite, put it this way:

"Alan's father had taught him many things. He had taught him that manners are nothing to do with etiquette or how to behave at an evening party, but something much more fundamental. 'The essence of good manners is unselfishness and a desire to give pleasure.' (...) [Alan's] early years had been full of affection, of freedom, independence and individuality. Much later these would be the wellsprings of his own books for children" (A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh, Random House, 1990, p. 46).

N.B.: A.A. Milne was most probably an INTP (as compared to the ENFP personality type of the Webmaster).

A.A. and John Vine Milne, when Alan was at Westminister

In 1893 Alan took the examinations for Westminster College (he was then about eleven). He did poorly in Greek, but excelled in mathematics. He became a Queen's Scholar (one of 35 out of 225 boys at Westminster), and one of the youngest ever to be elected so. Westminster, however, like Winchester and Eton (these being the three "best" boys' schools), was rather lacking in its educational standards at the time. In other respects as well, Westminster was much unlike J. V. Milne's own Henley House. If the plumbing was rather bad, the food was worse. "In all my years at Westminster," Alan wrote later, "I never ceased to be hungry."

The food, the hunger, were not the worst things at Westminster. The worst thing was the fear -- the fear of being tanned [hit four times with a thick cane, wielded at full force]. Corporal punishment was an everyday occurrence. It was particularly hard for Alan and Ken, coming from the atmosphere of Henley House, where their father found hitting a boy 'so utterly distasteful' 'that nothing but the conviction that the boy was being lost could compel him to resort to it'. At Westminster it was another matter. (...) It was not only the actual pain but the perpetual fear of it, and the random injustice of it, which seemed to Alan later 'such an unnecessary hardship'. There were so many things you could get tanned for; there were so many bizarre demands. (...) Masters did not tan. It was boys who wielded the cane and seemed to enjoy the wielding" (Thwaite, p. 55).

Nevertheless, Alan and Ken enjoyed their first summer term at Westminster. They found much else to enjoy in the following years. Both boys were keen cricketers. Alan's academic scores were excellent, and Ken's were not much inferior. (Again, both boys were very keen on mathematics.) The problem was that Ken was sixteen months older than Alan. Yet Ken, with a generosity that he showed to Alan all his life, never openly resented his younger brother's playing the upstart (or at least not until Alan beat Ken into the field of professional writing).

All the same, Westminster "ruined Alan as a mathematician" (in Thwaite's words, p. 64) despite Alan's excellent grades, and it did little to prepare him directly to be a writer. It was Henley House, not Westminster, that laid the foundations of Alan's writing career, for his father emphatically stressed the importance of writing to his pupils. But Alan could read, and at Westminster he read voraciously. Forty years later, when he dramatized Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, he remembered reading it first at Westminster. It remained one of his favorite books.

Alan could also write light verse, as could Ken (who discovered his own talent first). Alan collaborated with Ken on this untitled offering (Thwaite, pp. 70-72):

You ask for a poem, my ownest own editor --
Don't be alarmed at the epithet, pray:
It occurs in Lord Tennyson's Maud -- have you read it? -- a
Poem of merit authorities say.

Shall I write you a parody, smart and satirical,
After the manner of Punch and the rest --
Or something in dialect, pretty and lyrical,
Safe to remind you of Burns at his best?

Perhaps you would fancy an 'Ode to an Eider-duck'
Telling his praises with never a pause:
How he was born a duck, lived -- yes, and died a duck,
Hampered by Nature's inscrutable laws.

Or a rapturous ode on the worth of some Lycidas --
Blenkinsopp Brown he was called when alive,
And reckoned as likely as not an explicit ass:
Trivial facts not allowed to survive. (...)

(Alan and Ken argued over the last two lines of the third stanza for hours. I personally would've put "immutable" for "inscrutable", but either is better than Alan's first suggestion, "miraculous". As Ken pointed out, the one thing Nature could not be was miraculous; the idea was a contradiction in terms.)


A.A. Milne, when he was fairly young

Westminster had, despite itself, made it more likely that Alan would become a writer. When Alan went to Cambridge, he did so with the aim of editing Granta, the university's undergraduate magazine, in mind. While he only got a Third Class [BA (Hons.) Cantab.] when he graduated in 1903, he did edit and write for Granta as an undergraduate. One humorous serial in particular, "Jeremy, I and the Jelly-fish", caught the attention of R. C. Lehmann of Punch, and that eventually led Alan to contribute to Punch himself.

As editor of and contributor to Granta, Alan honed his natural talent at humorous prose and poetry. Light verse was a particular specialty of his, one he took very seriously as an art form. Nevertheless his early efforts were lighthearted, and foreshadowed in a sense what came later (Thwaite, p. 97):

When I was the usual innocent babe
I played on the nursery floor
(For the sake of the rhyme) with an astrolabe;
When I was a babe - with an astrolabe,
As, I think, I have said before.

"Love Among the Bricks" was written in a similar vein (p. 97):

Oh, do not make light of the past, love,
Nor say that my wishes are vain.
I never supposed it would last, love,
Yet why not begin it again?
Oh, think, can you think of the past, love,
When I was a beggar for bricks?
No, I never supposed it would last, love,
But, why did you ever turn six?

And then there was this droll contribution (p. 98):

Brown was a tutor, who loved and lost
An affectionate cannibal queen.
He swore he would win her whatever the cost -
She asked him to dine (as a matter of 'course').
He was with a highly original sauce!
And Brown is the fellow who's been.

Looking back on his Cambridge experience when he was thirty, Alan wrote a poem called "Golden Memories", in which he praised one thing above all: salmon mayonnaise. Here is the last stanza (p. 100):

'Did Beauty,' some may ask severely,
'Visit him in no other guise?
It cannot be that salmon merely
Should bring the mist before his eyes?
What of the river there where Byron's Pool lay,
The warm blue morning shimmering in the haze?'
Not this (I say)…Yet something else…Crème Brûlée!
Ye gods! To think of that and Salmon Mayonnaise!


A.A. Milne, cartoon by Spy


After graduation, Alan decided to try his hand at journalism and freelance writing. For that, he needed to move to London. It was far from smooth sailing for Alan at first. Nevertheless, his first poem for Punch appeared in May 18, 1904, and by July 10 he had written for seven other publications as well (at least 17 articles and other contributions, including "odd jobs"). Later that year he was working on his first book, Lovers in London. But the financial situation was not good. It was saved by the publication of Lovers in London in March 1095, and more importantly by Punch, which in 1905 began to accept Alan's work (prose and poetry) regularly. (In time, though, Milne bought back the copyright to Lovers in London for five pounds to prevent a reprint; he thought it was that bad, and he was not alone.)

By early 1906 Alan was wondering what to do next. Even in 1904 there were hints of his eventual direction as a playwright. But how to get a play produced? Scattered, often anonymous freelance articles would hardly make a name for himself. It seemed only a proper, strong novel would do it, and Alan wrote to Owen Seaman at Punch (where Alan had appeared thirty times by then) announcing his intent to take a country retreat to try to write one. As it happened, Seaman was just then becoming the editor of Punch, and immediately offered Alan a post as assistant editor. (Alan's own contributions, of course, would be paid at double rates.) It was an offer Alan could hardly refuse (he had long had a desire to edit Punch one day), and he started work as assistant editor on February 13, 1906.

Dorothy (Daphne) de Selincourt, aka Dorothy Milne


Working at Punch proved to be especially challenging, even given Alan's talent for "making something out of nothing". One day, Alan figured, he'd envy the miners or bricklayers who worked with their hands and "knew nothing of what work really meant." His Liberal politics kept him off the famous Punch Table until 1910, and at length they kept him from having any hope of becoming editor of Punch.

While Alan was at Punch, however, he made a name for himself through both his light verse and his humorous sketches. He also reviewed books and plays. The characteristic mixture of fact and fancy in his work (as many have noted) was and remains something one either finds funny or one doesn't -- and many people found it funny in those days.

Chief among the stars of Alan's humorous sketches were the Rabbits (who were humans, not toys or furry little creatures). They appeared no less than forty-six times between June 1909 and April 1914. For the rest of Alan's life, people remembered these middle-class family members and their conversational somersaults. Remarkably for those times, the dialectical tennis match between the men and women of the family kept the score about even between the two sides. (Interestingly, Alan invented Myra Rabbit well before he met his future wife, Dorothy de Selincourt. Myra and Dorothy had much in common, in particular a similar sense of humor.)

In 1910, after reading Norman Angell's book The Great Illusion, Alan committed himself to pacifism, a cause that he served the rest of his life. His personality already had inclinations in this direction, however. His abhorrence of violence and aggression was a fundamental trait of his character; if affected all his writing, including the Pooh Books. Another trait that affected his writing was a strong Puritanism, partly natural, partly imposed by his Victorian upbringing (though he considered himself an Edwardian as an adult).

It was during these years that Alan married Dorothy (on June 4, 1913), wrote for and helped to edit Punch, contributed to the Sphere, and realized the trap he was in as a writer. Trying to be funny twice a week for what could easily be the next twenty years (when Seaman would likely retire) was beginning to take its toll already. So were the interminable dinners at the Table. Did he really want to be editor of Punch after all? Collections of Alan's Punch pieces were being published in book form all the time; but Alan's orbit was beginning to take him into playwriting. Still, after writing for Punch he had little time (or more importantly, brain) left to devote to writing plays. How was he to escape the dilemma?

A.A. Milne, cartoon by Low

As it happened, World War I took care of that problem. Paradoxically, though Alan thought war stupid and cruel, now that England was in it (and hoping it would be "the war to end all wars", in H. G. Wells' phrase), Alan wanted to do his part in it. His part began by drilling soldiers and instructing them in laying telephone lines and using other forms of communication. He was later to use that experience himself on the front lines.

During that time, Alan authored a play (in 1915) for Dorothy and five children to perform for the troops. In time it was published as Once On a Time (1917); it was actually Alan's first children's book. It has been all but forgotten, but there are certainly elements that point forward to what appears later in the Pooh Books. In 1916, Alan finally wrote that three-act play that J. M. Barrie and Granville Barker had urged him to try; it was called Wurzel-Flummery. Just after he'd submitted it to Barrie, Alan was called to active service in France.

Alan's four years in the Army, and especially his time in France, was a nightmare he wished desperately to forget. Besides the senseless slaughter, there was the sheer physical, mental and moral degradation of it all. Yet Alan was luckier than countless others. Laid low by trench fever, Alan eventually returned to England in November 1916. Nothing by him appeared in Punch during his time in France.

On his thirty-fifth birthday, however, Alan learned that Wurzel-Flummery would be produced (if it could be cut to two acts) in a program sandwiched between two one-act plays by Barrie. Alan's play debuted on April 7, 1917, the day after the United States entered the war; many troops on leave attended its opening. From then on, in every spare moment the Army left him, Alan was writing plays. Yet he had never fully recovered from the effects of his trench fever, and had to be hospitalized for a time. He was assigned to "sedentary work" -- which in his case meant the writing of propaganda.

It was during his time of growing exhaustion that Alan wrote these immortal lines (Thwaite, p. 183):

When the War is over and the Kaiser's out of print,
I'm going to buy some tortoises and watch the beggars sprint;
When the War is over and the sword at last we sheathe,
I'm going to keep a jelly-fish and listen to it breathe.
When the War is over and we've done the Belgians proud,
I'm going to keep a chrysalis and read to it aloud;
When the War is over and we've finished up the show,
I'm going to plant a lemon-pip and listen to it grow.

Alan's play Belinda opened on April 8, 1918. It managed to survive London's worst air raid of the war and was taken off after nine weeks. Alan was still contributing intermittently to Punch, and another children's play, Make-Believe, appeared on Christmas Eve in 1918. In February 1919, however, Alan retired from Punch. Seaman's refusal to take him back as assistant editor made this necessary (as did Seaman's clarification that Alan's politics ensured he would never be editor). That same month, Alan was finally discharged from the Army. Now he faced the hard task of "making it" as a playwright.


A.A. and Dorothy Milne, in the sitting room at Cotchford Farm


Those who know A.A. Milne only as the author of the Pooh Books may be surprised to learn just how successful he became as a playwright. If he had had remarkable influence in his days at Punch (he had many imitators, but few rivals), his plays had just the right kind of light-hearted, fanciful escapism audiences were looking for after the war. It is the same lightness of touch that marks the Pooh Books, especially Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Alan's plays, novels and other writings have been criticized for a number of reasons, but lack of clever dialogue has rarely been one of them. Yet ironically, the one play of his that is still regularly performed is Toad of Toad Hall, an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows.

Mr. Pim Passes By was Alan's first real success as a playwright (in 1920). This was published along with Make-Believe, The Camberley Triangle, The Romantic Age, and The Stepmother in 1921. The Dover Road, The Truth About Blayds, and The Great Broxopp (which oddly foreshadowed Christopher Robin Milne's fate as being overshadowed by his literary namesake) were published in 1923. Success was published in 1923, and republished with To Have the Honour, Ariadne, and Portrait of a Gentlemen in Slippers in 1926. Other plays (new ones and republications of old ones) followed in the 1920's and 1930's, notably Michael and Mary in 1930. (Alan also wrote a detective novel, The Red House Mystery, which was published in 1922; it was his most successful book, aside from the Pooh Books.)

Alan's style as a playwright in his early days -- light, airy, "whimsical", like thistledown, yet often with an underlying serious theme -- was compared favorably even with that of George Bernard Shaw. When Mr. Pim Passes By opened in Chicago, the Tribune called it "a play that is, without endangering Shaw's general reputation, at least five hundred times better than Heartbreak House" (Thwaite, p. 197). One critic actually suggested that Henry James would have given his little finger to write the first act of a later, more serious play, The Truth About Blayds (pp. 232-233).

Alan's strength as a playwright, alas, was also his Achilles' heel. On the one hand, he had an extraordinarily strong moral sense of justice or virtue (often mistaken for a sense of morality, which is not the same thing and which strength of sense would be contrary to his expressed personality type). This was combined with a whimsical sense of humor, which allowed him to poke deftly (as with a needle) at the human condition rather than stab or club it violently. On the other hand, his inability to "give the Devil his due" and to "suffer fools gladly" often betrayed his deeper dramatic sense. When the turn of the critical wheel finally started going against him (ironically enough, with Success, on which he had set so much hope), his difficulty in accepting criticism (apparently taken by him as a challenge to his drive for knowledge and competence as well as for relevance) made the reactions of critics all the more painful for him.

It was Alan's very strength as a writer, however -- virtue combined with whimsy -- that made him a superb children's author in due time. Another factor that did so was Alan's unsentimental yet keenly observant attitude toward children, their thoughts and behavior; still another was his keen memory of his own childhood. It helped greatly as well that he had a living example in his own house on which to draw, one who was very much like and yet unlike him in personality and could add to the mix the value judgments and their accompanying feelings that he found so difficult to express on his own behalf. (As that child said later when he was grown, "My father's heart remained buttoned up inside of him all his life.")

An animation of the last illustration in NOW WE ARE SIX

After the critical and commercial "failure" of Success (which was nevertheless highly praised by other dramatists, actors and actresses), Alan's new literary direction started taking shape. (There would be other plays, but no doubt Alan felt it was time for a change.) In 1923, the famous poem "Vespers" was first published. It was not a children's poem, nor was it meant to be sentimental; in fact, it was meant to be ironic, showing how little interest little children actually have in prayer. It was here, though, that Christopher Robin -- the literary alter ego of Christopher Robin Milne, Alan's son -- made his first appearance.

In 1923, Rose Fyleman approached Alan with the idea that he write poems specifically for children. Initially he refused; but that summer, stuck as he was in a Welsh summerhouse surrounded by pouring rain, he may have begun to wonder if children's poetry were not in his line after all. A few years earlier, he had written this, on just such another wet summer day (Thwaite, p. 247):

Is it raining? Never - mind -
Think how much the birdies love it!
See them in their dozens drawn,
Dancing, to the croquet lawn -
Could our little friends have dined
If there'd been no worms above it?

Is it murky? What of that,
If the owls are fairly perky?
Just imagine you were one -
Wouldn't you detest the sun?

And so was born one of the best of Alan's poems for children, "The Dormouse and the Doctor", which appears in When We Were Very Young. That poem begins:

There once was a Dormouse who lived in a bed
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),
And all the day long he'd a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).

Other poems soon followed, and the complete volume was published in November 1924.

Winnie-the-Pooh (a.k.a. Edward Bear) was purchased for Christopher's first birthday (which explains why Pooh, at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, is one year younger than Christopher Robin). Pooh was the child's absolute favorite, his constant companion. Several other animals soon followed: Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger, partly to please Christopher and partly to give new material to Alan's stories. (Owl and Rabbit were completely invented by Alan.) Winnie-the-Pooh was written and published after When We Were Very Young (in 1926); then, Now We Are Six (another book of poems, 1927); and finally, The House at Pooh Corner, the last book of stories (1928). In these books, of course, we find the remarkable partnership between Alan and illustrator E.H. Shepard, who were very different as persons but whose arts seemed to go together like those of Gilbert and Sullivan. (A Gallery of Children, a much-inferior book of verse by Alan, was published between When We Were Very Young and Winnie-the-Pooh, in 1925.)


Map of the Cotchford Farm area (after Christopher Milne, THE ENCHANTED PLACES, Methuen)


Until 1924 (the year When We Were Very Young was published), the Milnes had been living in London. That very year they found and purchased the country cottage they had been looking for: Cotchford Farm, near Hartfield in Sussex, not far from Ashdown Forest and the Five Hundred Acre Wood. Over the years, the Milnes divided their time between their house on Mallord Street and their cottage at Cotchford. While the streets of London and the Sussex countryside would both inspire Alan's poetry for children, the stories set in "the Forest" and "the Hundred Acre Wood" would draw their inspiration from the area near Cotchford -- and also from Alan's own childhood memories and (as E.H. Shepard intimated) his personal appreciation of The Wind in the Willows.

To imagine the astonishing reception the four "Pooh Books" or "Children's Books" received in their day, one need only recall the reception given to the Harry Potter books in our own. Relatively speaking, the Pooh Books seem to have had just about as much impact on the publishing world and on the reading public. (Winnie ille Pu, the Latin translation of Winnie-the-Pooh, was the first Latin book ever to hit the New York Times' bestseller list.) Some elements do mark some of the poems as products of Alan's own time and social class. Nevertheless, the Pooh Books have stood the test of time because they portray the attitudes and concerns of children realistically, in terms a child can understand and an adult can appreciate.

There are other levels of appeal as well. Alison Lurie suggests that in the stories, Alan successfully fused the qualities of "the Golden Age of history and legend, and the lost paradise of childhood -- two eras which, according to psychologists, are often one in the unconscious mind" (Thwaite, p. 303). There is Alan's almost mathematical sense of humor, which consists in pursuing an idea to its logical absurdity (ibid.) -- a technique still used in the modern Pooh films and TV shows by Disney. There are the various characters, each with a distinctive personality that plays off all of the others, yet is archetypical enough to be readily understood and identifiable.

And then there is Christopher Robin himself -- who (in both the original books and the Disney derivatives) does not always take a large part in the action, but who often initiates or acts as a pivot for the action. There is something to be said for the theory that the animals in the Forest represent different aspects of Christopher Robin's developing personality, or at least show by comparison what Christopher Robin (and therefore Alan) values in a "good" person.

Some have criticized Christopher Robin as being too good to be true. Yet as Thwaite perceptively points out, this critique is completely beside the point. If Christopher Robin is parent-like, even godlike to his charges, it is because he stands in loco parentis. He allows the child to stand with him in the parents' place, with the animals looking up to him as children do to their parents. Moreover, if he is a god, "he is certainly a god of love" -- and not without definite human vulnerabilities (Thwaite, pp. 300-303). Finally, though Christopher Robin is but Christopher Milne idealized (the latter falling out of trees as the former never does), in real life Christopher Milne was very much like Christopher Robin: highly intelligent, caring, imaginative, sensitive, a lover of nature, a lover of the outdoors, and a surprisingly plucky explorer as his father had been for all their "primary introversion" as personalities.

A.A. and Christopher Milne, when they were rather older


Alan's reputation had been assured by the Pooh Books -- and it was not the reputation he had wanted. For all his deftness of touch in whatever he wrote, for all the appreciation others had of his comic gifts, it seems he wanted above all to be taken seriously. Under the grown-up schoolboy exterior, as it were, was a man passionately involved with the deeper concerns of the world. In particular, women had always done well in his comedic sketches and plays; it is they who had the best parts in the dialogues, who always came out at least equal with the men in verbal skirmishes. This was still rather unusual for the time, though a literary and cultural revolution was well under way.

Life goes on with its inevitable losses, and Alan had his. Ken died of tuberculosis in 1929; J. V. Milne, himself a widower by then, died in 1932. Barry the solicitor had manipulated his father's will to his own ends, and Alan was determined to have nothing more to do with him. Even Alan's and Dorothy's marriage was becoming more distant during the 1930's. The one consolation was that Alan and Christopher were drawing ever closer -- yet that closeness too would be disrupted, after Christopher returned home from military service in World War II.

Only one book Alan wrote during the 1930's would make any difference to his reputation: Peace With Honour (1934). It was "a passionate plea for peace, for the renunciation of war" (Thwaite, p. 381). This was the time of the League of Nations, of hopes that man might finally put aside war even as the hurricane of belligerence was gathering strength in the world. It was that very year that Hitler took Germany out of the League; by then, Italy and Japan were also openly militarist.

Alan had always been a ferocious polemicist, writing letters constantly to various newspapers. He hated giving lectures, however, even on such a subject as this. He did receive hundreds of letters from readers, many of whom agreed with him -- including one from Queen Marie of Romania. Professional critics had a more mixed reaction, but unquestionably Alan was at last being taken seriously. (Peace With Honour was one of only three books recommended by the Peace Pledge Union in Britain as part of preparation for courteous debate.)

Nevertheless, Alan's view that Britain's real greatness did not lie in her Empire but in her cultural achievements was a deeply unpopular view at the time, and not without good reason. It was a highly subjective view and not consistent with all the facts of the Real World past or present - the Culture drove the path to the Empire and the Empire then nurtured the Culture; they walked hand in hand, one and inseparable, and most Britons until at least Victorian times were deeply aware of and proud of the fact - but Alan was highly subjective by definition in his primary logical judgments about the objective  world. (Christopher Milne's view of the relationship between Culture and Empire, though equally subjective, may have been sounder than his father's from the very beginning. What changed him in that perspective toward a view as a world citizen was the broadening of his experiences by travel to a degree beyond anything Alan ever experienced.)

Alan's most formidable opponent on the subject of theoretical and practical pacifism was a fellow man of letters, T. S. Eliot. While most felt that Eliot's specific rebuke of Milne was unjustified, Eliot in time proved to be mostly right and Milne mostly wrong on the larger issues: in this present evil world, there are indeed even worse things than war, and therefore there are some things worth fighting for. In time, Alan himself came to realize this (Hitler's example could hardly have led him to see otherwise), and he wrote War With Honour (pamphlet, 1941) and War Aims Unlimited (pamphlet, 1941). Many pacifists thought Alan had betrayed the very ideals for which he had claimed to stand. Alan maintained that a pacifist's aim is to prevent war or, failing that, to end it as quickly and as honorably as possible.

During the war years, Alan contributed to Punch again as a freelancer. Behind the Lines, a collection of verse, was published in 1940.

Anne Darlington and Christopher Milne, as teenagers

In 1939, Alan had written his autobiography, It's Too Late Now. Its basic thesis is that one's makeup is largely determined by childhood influences and heredity, and so it was "too late now" for Alan to be a different kind of person than what he was. Some people, it seems, had long been wishing he were different, and their numbers were increasing; the world was changing around him, and not just because of the war. Alan's humor, however seriously motivated, had always been "nice". The sense of humor of the world around him was growing darker, less "nice".

In the 1940's, Alan wrote one last novel, Chloe Marr (1946), short stories, a few plays, and a long philosophical poem, The Norman Church (1948). This last work expresses Alan's long-held cynicism toward organized religion, even if expressed (as was so typical of him) in a lighthearted vein (Thwaite, p. 477):

The choir-boys shuffle in their seats;
A housewife mentally completes
Tomorrow's washing list; her lord
Adds up the hymns upon the board.
The Squire, as far as one can see,
Is interested in a bee;
A widow, reverently prim,
Is wondering how best to slim -
And all the maidens listen rapt, and 'think of him'.

But as his son Christopher noted in his own autobiography, Alan's audience had largely deserted him (save, of course, the part that read and bought the Pooh Books). Alan had always been lucky: what he had wanted to write was what his readers had wanted to read. But now that luck had largely passed away. If The Norman Church confirmed the opinion of the Milnes' neighbors in Hartsfield village that the Milnes were atheists and sinners, the poem made little impact on the world at large (Thwaite, p. 477).

Yet not all Alan's luck had gone. While he and Christopher were now distant, he and Dorothy had renewed their closeness. His last book was a collection of essays, Year In, Year Out (1952): a sort of second autobiography, giving Alan's views on a veritable smorgasbord of topics. It was well reviewed in both Britain and America. By then, happily for Alan, his ironic resentment of the Pooh Books' success had mellowed, and he could write this verse commentary for the New York Herald Tribune (Thwaite, p. 479):

(...) If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So - the Children's Books: a short
Intermezzo of a sort;
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
These four trifles for the young.

Though a writer must confess his
Works aren't all of them successes,
Though his sermons fail to please,
Though his humour no one sees,
Yet he cannot help delighting
In the pleasure of the writing
In a farmhouse old by centuries
This so happy an adventure is
Coming (so I must suppose,
Now I'm 70) to a close.
Take it all, year in, year out,
I've enjoyed it, not a doubt.


A.A. Milne's ultimate claim to literary immortality


Tragically, Alan's "luck" ran out just a few days later. A stroke in October 1952 left him invalid; an operation in December actually left him worse off than before and partly paralyzed. He was to live another three years and three months, but with a marked change of personality. An ill-timed interview with Christopher Milne (which, if reflecting poor memory on Christopher's part, seems less rash than Christopher himself later considered it to be) caused Alan to change his will. Christopher's inheritance remained substantial, but the separation between Alan and Christopher deepened. (This personal distance was compounded by geographical distance, as Christopher and his wife Lesley had moved to Devonshire to set up a bookstore.) As a patient, Alan also lacked patience and tact; he criticized everything and everybody, it seems -- except Dorothy. Yet to the end, he also seems to have kept aware of his own shortcomings.

"The last eighteen months were dreary and empty, There is nothing to record" (Thwaite, p. 484). Soon after 1956 began, Alan slipped into unconsciousness; and on January 31, 1956, Alan's death was announced on the eight-o'clock news by the B.B.C.

Though A.A. Milne did not believe in any personal immortality after death, he did believe that an artist gains immortality through his work -- if only that of the British Museum's hardcover editions. His reputation as a writer for adults survives almost entirely in that form. It is his children's books, as well as the stream of countless products derived from them by Dutton and Disney, that have assured his artistic immortality. Perhaps this proves in the end Alan's own axiom: the man of talent will find his own place (even if it is not the place he desires or expects).


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Updated June 17, 2016