How can A. A. Milne’s “The Dormouse and the Doctor” poem be interpreted?

I’ve been reading When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne and stumbled upon this beautiful poem, “The Dormouse and the Doctor“.

I would really appreciate if somebody could explain to me in details what is this poem really about, because I have too many questions about it, like:

  • Who is Dormouse?

  • Why delphiniums, geraniums and chrysanthemums?

  • Why did the Doctor ask the Dormouse to say Ninety-nine?

  • Who are “chrysanthemum people in Kent”?


Here are the opening stanzas of the poem:

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).

A Doctor came hurrying round, and he said:
“Tut-tut, I am sorry to find you in bed.
Just say ‘Ninety-nine,’ while I look at your chest…
Don’t you find that chrysanthemums answer the best?”

The Dormouse looked round at the view and replied
(When he’d said “Ninety-nine”) that he’d tried and he’d tried
And much the most answering things that he knew
Were geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).

The Doctor stood frowning and shaking his head,
And he took up his shiny silk hat as he said:
“What the patient requires is a change,” and he went
To see some chrysanthemum people in Kent.

See Wikisource for the complete text of the poem.

There is a deeper meaning here. It is a complaint against overbearing authority that decides what is best for people without asking or caring if that is what they want. It was written in an era familiar through ‘Downton Abbey’ and Oscar Wilde when overbearing and entitled individuals had disproportionate levels of control over families and society. Whether that kind of thing goes on today, I couldn’t say, but I find the poem quite helpful!

Kent is called the Garden of England and it would make sense to get horticultural material there. The type of plants don’t really matter but show his playfulness and skill with words. They are all summer plants though, and would have been replaced when they died back in Autumn, perhaps showing an unnecessary grandiosity to the Dr’s scheme.

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