The Snuff Box

from a true story told in My Mother
by Fr. Bernard Vaughan (1847-1922)

When I was just a little boy,
My mother served us shepherd’s pie.
We thirteen children sniffed with joy,
With statue faces, on the sly.

But quenching hunger was my goal,
So while my siblings sat in place,
I cast aside my self-control
And rammed my slice right in my face.

My father said, “How poor a thing
To be your appetite’s mere slave
And let it lead you by a string—
Its end could be an early grave.”

My whole head redder than a finch’s,
I said, “When Mother brings you snuff,
Each day you’re taking giants’ pinches!
A small amount should be enough!”

My father stared at me; when done,
He finally cleared his throat, then said,
“Come bring the snuff box here, my son.”
I fetched the box, returned with dread.

He held the box and raised his hand,
Said as he hurled it to the fire,
“There goes the box and its demand,
That bit of slavery of desire.”

I’ve never since let appetite
Enslave or lead me like a beast.
This cleared my mind to see God’s light
And hear His call to be a priest.



The Little Boy Who Disobeyed

from a true story told in Spiritual Crumbs for
Hungry Little Souls by Mary E. Richardson

My mother said, “Don’t look, don’t talk,
Don’t stop, just hurry as you walk.”
She sent me to the grocer’s store—
I never saw her anymore.

Right at the corner of the street,
A circus train came—what a treat!
Like King David, I stopped to look—
Some men jumped out, and me, they took.

They grabbed and gagged, they bound my hands,
They carted me to distant lands
To lift and stoop and toil away
For eighteen hours every day.

At twenty, finally, I escaped,
Returning home, all bruised and scraped,
To tell my mother, long delayed:
“I never should have disobeyed.”

But to the door, a lady came;
To her I told my mother’s name.
“I hate to bring bad news,” she said.
“Your mother dear is long since dead.”

I ran so fast, on feet to fly,
While praying it was all a lie,
But in the churchyard where I’d flown,
I saw my mother’s name in stone.

So please, oh please, go warn some others:
“Obey your fathers and your mothers!”
Or someday they might meet my fate—
God punished me; it’s now too late.



Joshua C. Frank works in the field of statistics and lives near Austin, Texas. His poetry has also been published in the Asahi Haikuist Network.

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32 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    These are what used to be called moral “exempla,” or brief poems that taught lessons to children by a narrated example. They often had an element of scariness in them to make the point clear to young minds.

    The second one is strictly of that type (a kidnapping and the death of the boy’s mother), while the first is somewhat more thoughtful, in that it makes a generalized abstract point about appetite and its dangers.

    They are both good poems for kids.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Joseph. It means a lot to have a compliment on my poetry from you. I’m honored.

      “The Little Boy Who Disobeyed” is, as the caption says, based on a true story from a Catholic children’s book from the 19th century. The author said of the speaker, “I knew this young man, and heard him tell the story, and say, with tears in his eyes, that God had punished him severely for not being strictly obedient to his dear mother.” The fact that this really happened drives the point home much more strongly than if it were merely a moralizing fable.

      The first is more abstract, true, but I learned a lot from the example of the speaker’s father.

  2. Brian A Yapko

    This is wonderful work, Josh. I especially like The Snuff Box which presents its narrative with clarity and leads the reader to a strong moral point. I especially like the rhyme of “finch’s” and “pinches.” The Little Boy Who Disobeyed is somewhat darker — the stuff of nightmares, in fact — but also a good read. Well done on both!

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Brian! I’m glad you like them, especially since you’re our expert on writing first-person narrative poems. You can see why I had to dig these stories out of old books and bring them out to a wider audience!

  3. Russel Winick

    Both fun reads, Joshua. Thank you. I’m impressed with the humility of the father in The Snuff Box.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Russel. I’m impressed with his humility as well. I’ve found it to be quite a useful example for myself.

  4. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Two well told morality poems that would have made Aesop proud! I enjoyed them. By the way, does anyone use snuff these days?

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I used to bring in a full snuffbox to my literature class at NYU, when we were discussing Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” The students were delighted to sample it (I always brought a box of tissues for those who sneezed). But the school’s administrative bureaucrats made a big stink about some asinine rule that “did not permit tobacco products” on campus. So an excellent learning experience was squashed.

      My paternal grandfather took snuff, and had two lovely snuffboxes: a very old one made of horn, and an elegant sterling silver one.

      • Roy Eugene Peterson

        Joseph, thank you for sharing that story of academic bureaucracy. I can imagine how small and beautiful those snuff boxes are and why you have an affinity for them.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Paul. I thought they were good lessons too; that’s why I had to write poems about their stories.

  5. Margaret Coats

    Joshua, your rhymes and rhythm make these clear and easy to read. That’s a prime virtue in children’s poetry, because children learn not only moral values but artistic virtues in reading and reciting poems of this sort.

    Still, THESE ARE FOR ADULTS JUST AS MUCH AS FOR CHILDREN, and that includes adult poets. Isn’t it obvious that adults are far more inclined than children to overeat or become distracted from duties? They have more freedom. Most of the world’s literary traditions contain a considerable quantity of moral poetry, sometimes ostensibly addressed to children, just as yours is because the speakers are children. This poetry is by far the most neglected kind of literature in our time, both by readers and poets. I will certainly say that when I read medieval poetry in any language, I am simply not interested in narratives like these, or in the collections of proverbs or fables or advice to persons of different walks of life. It takes great literary skill to make them lively, and even when a great author possesses such skill, his work is likely to be ignored. Many translations of The Canterbury Tales omit the Parson’s Tale–despite Chaucer’s Parson being one of his most rational and racy entertainers. Good job here in joining Chaucer, not to mention Aesop, Solomon, and the Chinese sage whose Dizi Gui is translated in part by Evan Mantyk.

    I’m interested to see that your first tale comes from Bernard Vaughan, one of a distinguished Hereford family. Of the thirteen children in Bernard’s family with a military officer father, all five girls became nuns, and six of eight boys priests, leaving two sons to carry on the family name. Three of the priests became bishops (one in Australia), and the eldest, Herbert, was Catholic primate of England as Archbishop of Westminster. See what a father can do when he is willing to throw his snuff box in the fire!

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Margaret. It’s nice to hear that these poems have the most important virtues of children’s poetry and show “great literary skill.” With your comments, I see that I did exactly what I set out to do, which was to turn two real 19th-century boys’ very different experiences into effective children’s poems. Maybe I should make a collection of children’s poems like this for today’s families!

      It’s true that these lessons are at least as important for adults as well, more so because of the freedom you mention. I found the example of the father of the speaker of “The Snuff Box” extremely helpful in overcoming enslavement by inanimate objects like his cherished snuff box. Having read of the successes his children had that you mentioned, I knew this was an important principle to follow, as I’m called to marry and raise children of my own someday, and as you say so well, “See what a father can do when he is willing to throw his snuff box in the fire!”

      “The Little Boy Who Disobeyed” is also a lesson to adults, as we like to go our own way just like children and often make mistakes that cost us many wasted years and the loss of important relationships.

      Thank you for your compliments on my poems.

  6. Paul Freeman

    I really enjoyed the cautionary tale of the boy who disobeyed. Very dark.

    The snuff box, with its personalised ending, I felt could have been served better with a universal wisdom.

    Thanks for the reads, Joshua.

    • Margaret Coats

      “Snuff Box” does lack the more didactic final quatrain supplied by the grown-up speaker in the second poem. The last line in the first poem delivers something of a jolt with the speaker’s decision to become a priest, but that is a suitable surprise “moral,” with the speaker demonstrating a specific lifelong self-sacrifice comparable to his father’s surprising act of giving up snuff. To my mind, that is drama making this pair of poems the same but different.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Paul. I’m glad you enjoyed them so much. To address your concern about the last stanza of “The Snuff Box,” I felt that the ending could extrapolate easily enough to other people’s life experiences, and that the real example to learn from is not the speaker as much as his father.

      • Paul Freeman

        I’ve just read The Snuff Box again and get what you mean.

        When I lived in southern Africa, there was an old guy who had crumpled up and thrown away his cigarettes after his daughter – who he’d driven all the way to boarding school, smoking while he drove – told him it was a filthy habit as she got out and slammed the door.

        He never smoked a single cigarette, again. It’s one of those anecdotes that sticks.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Wow, Paul, that’s a great story! I bet you could write a great poem about it…

      • Paul Freeman

        Not really. The guy was an utter arsehole before and afterwards.

  7. jd

    I enjoyed both poems, Joshua, especially the first with its wonderful lesson on the heels of fear.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Josh, I love both of these poems equally. They hark back to times of parental care and advice – times when children respected the word of their parents and if they failed to, they faced the consequences… harsh ones in the case of ‘The Little Boy Who Disobeyed’, which has a Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Jim’ feel about it. Yours is a haunting cautionary poem that every child should read. As for ‘The Snuff Box’, isn’t it just lovely to see a father lead by example… the very best way to rear children in my humble opinion, and your words say this smoothly and beautifully. Both poems are adeptly crafted and full of meaning… meaning that’s missing in today’s society and needs to shine its light in the darkness our children are faced with today. More of these please!! The jaunty meter and clear message make these poems thoroughly enjoyable and accessible.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Thank you, Susan. It’s always a pleasure to read your comments. I’m glad that you see them as “adeptly crafted,” “full of meaning,” and “thoroughly enjoyable and accessible.” I love that you want more of these… I intend to look for more of these, and I love the idea of collecting enough to write a children’s book!

      I think what makes them hearken back to such times is that they’re both true stories that took place back then. For me, that’s the most powerful aspect.

      I agree that the best way for a parent to lead is by example… and that every child should read “The Little Boy Who Disobeyed.” It had such a big impact on me even at my age that I still remembered the story years after reading it and knew I had to write about it!

  9. jd

    Joshua, I’ve had occasion to think of your poem several times since I read it yesterday. It affected me somewhat like the feeling I had on reading “My Pappa’s Waltz”, by Theodore Roethke. No doubt it will stay with me for a while still.

    Margaret: Thank you very much for the background information. Very interesting.

  10. Monika Cooper

    Your poem “The Snuff Box” has stayed in my memory: that moment of suspense when the father is making his choice about how to react and the suspense continuing as his son and family wonder what he will do. It’s powerful when a patriarch lets himself learn from one of his own children and you capture the grace of that wonderfully.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      Wow, Monika, it’s really nice to hear that my poem has stayed in your memory! Of course, the reason I had to write it in the first place was because the story had stayed in my memory for so long.

      Thank you for letting me know.


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