Thank you, Celeste, for tackling today’s important topic of poetry. I appreciate you!
Celeste Cruz is mommy to six children under age eight, with baby #7 due this spring. Once upon a time she was training to be an English professor; now (when she has her hands free!), she enjoys distance running, reading, nature journaling, traditional Catholicism, learning Italian, and relaxing with her husband of ten years. She is a moderator for the AmblesideOnline Forums, and you can also find her sharing the joys of a Catholic Charlotte Mason education at home on her blog, Joyous Lessons.
Most people will agree with me that poetry ought to be taught. Doubtless there are still some who hold that [poetry] is a mere amusement, a trifle fit only for the nursery or the drawing room, and unworthy to encroach on the sacred hours devoted to science and mathematics and physical exercise. And others will tell me that it is too good for the schoolroom. Poetry, they say, the ripest fruit of the ripest thought of mankind, should not be squandered on minds too crude or too weak to receive it: the audience of the true poet, if fit, must always be ‘few.’ But these two classes are in a minority, and I do not propose to deal with them to-day. I must assume that poetry is good, and that, being good, it cannot be too good for our children.On the Teaching of Poetry by Mary A. Woods
I ‘m sorry to say that at least in our day, the “two classes” mentioned by Ms. Woods in this Parents’ Review article seem to be in the majority. We find in our culture roughly the same two sides of the argument. Anti-poetry advocates contend that a student’s time is better spent on learning that will be relevant to their careers, their future as workers. Even the time spent reading nursery rhymes to toddlers might be better spent on learning colors, identifying shapes, starting to read, getting a “jump start” on life — and high test scores. And those that seem to advocate for poetry usually mean something silly, fun, and upbeat — something that would make a sweet little class performance for the school’s spring program. Those that would recommend Tennyson, Blake, or Shakespeare for children are few and far between.
But that’s precisely what Miss Mason and her fellow teachers recommended. Miss Mason advocates for the daily reading of classic poetry in all grades. She assigns poetry memorization and recitations throughout a student’s school years, both in English and in foreign languages being studied. And such memorization is not to be simply a feat of the mind but rather the natural learning of verses through frequent exposure. It is about the child’s relationship with poetry, about storing up verses in the heart and mind and forming a connection with them.
To be sure, there are many practical reasons to read poetry. It teaches an ear for language. It models brevity in writing. It prepares one well for more sophisticated reading. It is the mark of an educated person in many intellectual circles. It gives one a sense for diction and rhythm. It aids in understanding the many cultural references that draw on the classics. It provides a sense for metaphor in writing. It helps with public speaking. It sharpens the powers of observation. It exercises the memory. And so on.
But as usual, Miss Mason doesn’t advocate studying content just for skills. She believes in the content itself, in the ideas that are contained there. Poetry for poetry’s sake.
People employ themselves about Knowledge, about Mathematics, Poetry, History, in a feverish, eager way, not at all for the love of these things, but for the sake of prize or place, some reward bestowed on Emulation. But Knowledge has her own prizes, and these she reserves for her lovers. It is only in so far as Knowledge is dear to us and delights us for herself that she yields us lifelong joy and contentment. He who delights in her, not for the sake of showing off, and not for the sake of excelling others, but just because she is so worthy to be loved, cannot be unhappy.Vol. 4, p. 78-9
So if not for the practical reasons above, why should children study poetry at all?
:: Because it provides the food for a moral education. Ideas are the food of the mind, and poetry introduces the variety of human experience, thought, and conduct to its reader:
This education of the feelings, moral education, is too delicate and personal a matter for a teacher to undertake trusting to his own resources. Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear of or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science and sums must all be pressed into service. No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance.Vol. 6, p. 59
:: Because it is a meeting of minds. As usual, Miss Mason sees the reading of living books as an opportunity for a student to come in contact with the mind of another. For poetry, for example, she suggests that
some one poet should have at least a year to himself, that he may have time to do what is in him towards cultivating the seeing eye, the hearing ear, the generous heart.Vol. 5, p. 224
:: Because it is a meeting of eras. In their verses, poets have best preserved the thoughts and spirit of their period, allowing us access into their world:
A point which I should like to bring before the reader is the peculiar part which poetry plays in making us aware of this thought of the ages, including our own. Every age, every epoch, has its poetic aspect, its quintessence, as it were, and happy the people who have a Shakespeare, a Dante, a Milton, a Burns, to gather up and preserve its meaning as a world possession.Vol. 6, p. 274
Now, to be fair, all the reasons I mentioned above could be said for all good literature, not just poetry. So why poetry specifically?
:: Because it is a delight. Poetry is more concerned with diction, rhythm, and form than any other genre. The poet’s consideration of these combines to form verses that have more possibility to enchant than prose can. As Miss Mason phrases the distinction,
It is more impersonal, more condensed, is capable of more reverent handling than is prose.Vol. 6, p. 166
And she adds:
These should include a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour.Vol. 1, p. 227
:: Because it adds vitality. Verses loved are easily memorized and, as such, can at a moment’s notice bring life to other areas of study.
We see, too, that the magic of poetry makes knowledge vital, and children and grown-ups quote a verse which shall add blackness to the ashbud, tender wonder to that ‘flower in the crannied wall,’ a thrill to the song of the lark.Vol. 6, p. 328
:: Because it teaches with subtlety. This is really where poetry shines. Miss Mason privileges teaching through story, and poetry is the epitome of this method:
Again, if [his school books] are too easy and too direct, if they tell him straight away what he is to think, he will read, but he will not appropriate. Just as a man has to eat a good dinner in order that his physical energies may be stimulated to select and secrete that small portion which is vital to him, so must the intellectual energies be stimulated to extract what the individual needs by a generous supply, and also by a way of presentation that is not obvious. We have the highest authority for the indirect method of teaching proper to literature, and especially to poetry.Vol. 6, p. 303-4
I want to end with an encouragement: you don’t have to “understand” poetry to study it with your children. You don’t have to be able to dissect the parts of speech, describe the rhyme scheme, or even explain its meaning. As Miss Mason says,
“he parables of Christ remain dark sayings; but what is there more precious in the world’s store of knowledge?Vol. 6, p. 304
Our goal as home educators is to spread the feast and encourage relationship. We don’t need any special knowledge of poetry to do this. What we do need is delight for the subject. As always, the question in a Charlotte Mason education is not how much we know, but how much we care.
And if you don’t mind my assigning homework, I’ll recommend here a couple Parents’ Review articles that are really motivating, both for those struggling to include poetry in their homeschools and for those who already love poetry and are excited to share it with their children. I’ve talked about the “why”; these articles cover the “how” as well. Read and be inspired by how simple the “teaching” of poetry can be!
Wishing you and your children all the poetic joys of a Charlotte Mason education!
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