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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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An Address on the Teaching of Poetry

by the Rev. H. C. Beeching
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 893-898


In every art--and teaching is an art-any discussion of means must be postponed to the consideration of the end in view; and so, if we are to teach poetry with its proper effect, we must begin by asking, what effect poetry is intended to produce. For instance, Is it the purpose of poetry to be simply a simulaus to the attention, a tonic for the memory? In that case we shall employ it to embalm facts, of whatever kind, that seem to us worth remembering. They may be facts in Scripture history, such as--

"Joshua, the sone of Nun,
And Caleb, the son of Jephunneh,
Were the only two that ever got thro'
To the land of milk and honey."

Or facts in mechanics:

"And so no force, however great,
Can strain a cord, however fine,
Into a horizontal line
That shall be absolutely straight."

Or facts in morals:

"'Tis not enough to say
I'm sorry, and repent,
And then go on from day to day
Just as we always went.
Repentance is to leave
The sins we did before,
And show that we in earnest grieve
By doing them no more."

I am free to confess that the facts I have mentioned are, for what they are worth, indelibly engraven on my memory, while many other facts in Bible history and morals, no less than in mechanics, have vanished from it like a ripple upon water. Or, instead of these subjects, take one apparently more congenial to the Muse; shall we say that the facts to be embalmed for us in Poetry are facts not of scientific but of picturesque interest, such as escape the ordinary attention, but are well worth attending to. Mrs. Gaskell tells us that the world of her day had not known the colour of ash buds but for Tennyson's now familiar line. Or take this description of a last week in February from another modern poet:

"The hazel hath put forth his tassels ruffed;
The willow's flossy tuft
Hath slipped him free;
The rose, amid her ransacked orange hips,
Braggeth the tender tips
Of bowers to be."

As a description of a copse you will agree with me that this could not be bettered. Shall we say then, here, at any rate, we have a legitimate purpose for poetry to serve: it shall sharpen our children's powers of observation, and store their memories in an easy and pleasing manner with the beauties of Nature. One might, perhaps, be tempted to say so, did we not remember that poetry had a long history in England before Thomson and the Lake School, as is is called, began to record their observation of Nature; and if you consult the Lake poets themselves you find that they have a great dislike for such photographic poetry. Coleridge calls it "picking Nature's pocket"; and Wordsworth strongly objected to Walter Scott's habit of going out with a notebook to jot down observations for future use. Even the Poet of Nature did not consider that it was the poet's function to be "a guide to knowledge"--even knowledge of Nature. To what, then, should he guide us? He should guide us to joy, which may co-exist with the greatest knowledge, or may be denied to the greatest knowledge; which may co-exist with the greatest ignorance, or be denied to the greatest ignorance.

"A primrose by the river's brim,"

says Wordsworth, of the stupid Peter Bell,

"A yellow primrose was to him;
And it was nothing more,"

i.e., he took no pleasure in it. And the parodist expresses an equal sad truth of a learned botanist:

"Primroses by the river brim.
Dicotyledons were to him;
And they were nothing more."

It is this "something more," something over and above what the eye can see, whether it be the eye of farmer or man of science, that Poetry exists to give us, "the finer spirit of knowledge," and this brings joy.

We shall not then, perhaps, be far astray if we conclude that the purpose of poetry is to communicate or extend the joy of life by quickening our emotions. How it does so, by what magic of art or nature, we should require to be poets to know. But this is what it does: it teaches us how to feel, by expressing for us, in the most perfect way, right human emotions, which we recognise as right, and come ourselves to share. It is good for all of us to be taught how to feel; to be taught how to feel in the presence of Nature; how to feel to one's country, to one's lover, or wife, or child; to be taught to feel the mystery of life, the glory of it, the pathos of it; good for us to be shaken out of our lethargic absorption in ourselves, and to have our eyes anointed with salve, that we may look round us and rejoice, and lift up our hearts.

Well, if that be so, if "a thing of beauty is a joy for ever," and the purpose of poetry is to make us blind moles see this beauty and so feel this joy, then our problem of teaching poetry to children reduces itself to this: What can we do to ensure that the poetry our children learn shall open their eyes to beauty, shall increase their joy? In all humility I would offer one suggestion on

this point to-day, this: The poetry must be such as to delight them, (1) by being in itself delightful; and (2) by being suitable to their years.

(1) The poetry must be itself delightful. All the poetry they learn must be delightful. If you wish poetry all through life to preserve its charm for them, you must be content that it shall always charm. You must not now and then tuck a pill into the jam. I speak as a parent when I say that I can understand that the temptation to do this may be irresistible, but it must be resisted. You must be content that the names of the faithful spies, the laws of mechanics, and even the nature of Repentance, shall lapse from your children's memories IF they cannot be treasured there without the use of rhyme and rhythm. Rhyme and rhythm are to be sacred to joy, and these other things are not joyful. Need I add that learning poetry must on no account be made a punishment.

(2) The poetry must be suitable to their years. You must not expect little children to enjoy what you enjoy. You can drink claret, perhaps port, perhaps champagne, they cannot; their natural beverage is milk. The sources of joy open to them are the simplest, and to these you must bring them. The grandeur of Milton's blank verse will be as little to them as an organ concerto of Handel's; they must have simple rhythms to begin with, and they must have rhyme; they must have verses that sing themselves. And the subjects, too, must be appropriate to their age. There is an age, just beyond Nursery Rhymes, which finds its most exquisite joy in the "land of counterpane." For such in our generation Louis Stevenson has written, or, in a more ideal way, Blake, in some of his "Songs of Innocence." And let me say here, in a parenthesis, that I agree with Miss Mason (whom we all delight to honour) in somewhat dreading nonsense verses for children as being a trifle (shall I say) profane. I once heard a mother of the upper classes reciting to her young hopefuls these graceful and spirit-stirring lines:

"Old Mrs. Hubblechin,
Had a little double chin."

What a criticism of life! Keep verse for the serious joys of life. Then, for children of an older growth, there are narrative poems, such as Mrs. Hemans' "Casabianca.." There is Longfellow, the very poet of reflective childhood; and for those older, again, there is Scott, there is Macaulay, and there are the "Northern Ballads." There are poems too for all moods--poems that breathe and inspire the joy of patriotism, like Campbell's "Battle of the Baltic" and "Ye Mariners of England," Cowper's "Boadicea," and "The Royal George," Burns' "Scots wha hae," Browning's "Herve Riel," Tennyson's "Revenge," Taylor's "Red Thread of Honour," Yule's "Birkenhead"; poems full of the joy of romance, such as Allingham's "Up the Airy Mountain," Browning's "Pied Piper," Arnold's "Forsaken Merman," Coleridge's "Kubla Khann" and "Ancient Mariner"; poems of the joy of earth, like Shelley's "Cloud and Skylark," and poems of man's fellow-creatures, like many of Cowpers.

And then there is Shakespeare, from whom alone, almost, one might feed one's children from boyhood to old age.

Not to bore you further with examples, let me say in brief that for younger children a parent could not do better than procure Palgrave's "Children's Treasury," or Lang's "Blue Poetry Book," and for their elders Mowbray Morris's "Poet's Walk" (an excellent selection), or Henley's "Lyra Heroica."

Now, besides choosing rightly for the child his poetical food, a parent has the further task of helping him to digest it; and the best help to digestion is gentle catechising. I say gentle catechising, because poetry must not on any pretence be made into a poetry lesson; all that is at enmity with joy must be banished from this ideal province. What one wants, of course, is that the poem shall become to the reader what it was to the writer; a few words may need explaining, but the explanation must not be elaborate, an end in itself, an excuse for philology , as is done in the editions of Shakespeare published by the Clarendon Press; the chief thing will be to make sure that the child realises the facts, the situation. To borrow an illustration: "Take any two boys who have learnt 'Hohenlinden,"and you will probably find that one of them, at least, has never imagined the scene at all: does not even know that it is sunset, does not know what untrodden fields of snow look like under a low sun; has not realised the dark look of river-water flowing between snow-fields."

If the poem be dramatic let the child act it.

There are great single speeches, or dialogues, or whole scenes in Shakespeare's historical plays, and the best comedies, like "As You Like It," where the situation is well within a child's imagination. He could learn Hubert and Arthur, from "King John," Henry V.'s speech before Agincourt, much of "Julius Caesar," much of "The Merchant of Venice"; indeed, these last two plays are so well suited for young people by the interest and simplicity of their plots that we act one or other on alternate years in our village.

I have said what I came to say. In conclusion, I will mention two subsidiary gains that the study of poetry brings with it. It will be readily seen that if the poems become real and vivid to them, the children gain, besides the immediate joy in the life represented, and the right training of the emotions by their right exercise thus administered (which I maintain is the true function of poetry), they gain, I say, besides this, exercise to their own powers of imagination; the wings of their own fancy become fledged, and they can fly at will. And, secondly, they gain skill in the use of language, Coleridge defined poetry in a homely way as "the best words in the best order"; and it is, of course, a primary mark of poetical style that the words are not like modern coins or counters struck in a mint, whose value is ascertainable at a glance, but like antique coins or medals, which have, indeed, a rough and common value, but have also an individual delicacy and distinction, in which lies their artistic value.

Now, these two things--a faculty of realising vividly, and a power of vivid expression--are of the essence of culture, and the best antidote to the vulgarity which is in all the air we breathe.