The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Teaching of Poetry to Children

by Mrs. J. G. Simpson
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 879-883

When possible, poems cited in this article are linked to online resources, or, you can view a supplemental page that includes most of the poems here.

There are, no doubt, people whose poetic taste is so true and deep, that no amount of neglect in early life has been able to prevent its being the ruling passion of their lives, but it is nevertheless true, that in the majority of cases, the real love of poetry may be traced to tastes implanted in childhood. Nor is it less true, that only a small number of parents seem to realise this. Either they have no real love of poetry themselves or they do not understand that beautiful words and sounds appeal to children to a remarkable degree. Everyone knows how easily children learn by heart, and that a verse of poetry repeated to them two or three times is fixed in their memories without further trouble, but why do people seem to imagine that they prefer doggrel, or that somehow or other doggrel is easier for them to learn than poems which clothe their ideas in beautiful language?

Personally I believe in teaching children, or rather allowing children to learn, a great deal by heart of which they cannot possibly understand the meaning, but even granting that it is easier for a child to learn something he understands, why need it be rhymed prose of the baldest and dullest description? In an interesting paper reported in the Parents' Review as having been read at the recent Conference, it is suggested that in teaching a child to read, you should "be careful to choose lines that will interest and amuse him and appeal to his imagination." By all means. It is most important that we should do so. But what are the lines instanced?

The friendly cow all red and white
I love with all my heart,
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with my apple tart.

The appeal here is I am afraid more to the stomach than to the imagination! but why, why, in the name of all that is beautiful are we to waste our own time and our children's in teaching them absolute rubbish, which does not convey one beautiful image or idea and is not even strictly true or fact? Surely in all our rich and varied literature we can fine simple little poems, tender and dainty, which will appeal just as much to the little reader and will not tend to vitiate his taste. Of course the object in the verse instanced was to teach the child a variety of words in a bright form, but as the two objects of reading and learning by heart are attained at the same time, it seems a pity that the verse learnt should not be worth learning; and there are any number of really pretty little "animal" poems which would answer the purpose as far as the reading was concerned and be a real gain to the child. For instance, there are many of Jane and Ann Taylor's poems, part of Wordsworth's "Pet Lamb," poems like "The Fieldmouse," [probably The Fieldmouse by Cecil Frances Alexander] and "The Sparrow," [probably The Sparrow by Paul Laurence Dunbar] whose authors are unknown to me, and many of Mary Howitt's poems, perhaps best of all her "Woodmouse."

Do you know little Wood-mouse,
That pretty little thing;
It lives among the forest leaves,
Beside the forest spring," etc.

Such a poem appeals at once to the child's taste for what is pretty and refined in expression and is as different from "The Friendly Cow," as Goldsmith's "Babes in the Wood":

These pretty Babes with hand in hand
Went wandering up and down;
But never more they saw the Man
Approaching from the Town.

is from Dr. Johnson's

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

[The distinction between Goldsmith's Babes in the Wood poem and Johnson's rhyming satire was made by Wordsworth in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads—LNL]

You cannot begin to train a child's taste too soon. Just as in showing pictures, to quote another speaker at the Conference [Miss Hammond, article here], "To withhold good pictures from children because we thoughtlessly conclude them to be incapable of noticing anything but grandness of colour, is to despise them, to value them too lightly," so with poetry you must believe that a child is capable of enjoying and admiring the very best, if only you show him how to begin. You must let him see that you yourself delight in well chosen epithets and true pieces of word painting; you must let him feel that you only care for poems which put a pleasant thought into your mind or a pleasant picture before your eyes; you must let him realize that when you go with him for a country walk, you can add a charm to the brook or the meadow, or the oak tree, or the wild rose, by a familiar quotation, and his taste will not be long in forming itself. This taste should be formed, or should be in process of forming, before the child goes to school.

Nowadays the schools do their best to give a taste for good literature, and we have no longer to complain of the dry extracts "from the best authors," which were all we had to nourish us in former days. Now when books like Miss [Mary A.] Woods' poetry books [view Third Poetry Book] are to be found in our schools, there is nothing better to ask—and the only fault is, that the child has not been trained at home to enjoy the feast which is put before him, and is apt to consider it only another branch of school work, and never to give himself the trouble of trying to enjoy it. If he knew a number of the selections before he met them at school, the meeting would be a joyful recognition of old acquaintances—he would remember how his father or mother had repeated those verses to him, he would recall and try to imitate the emphasis they had used and the cadence of their voices.

Parents do not realize what an enormous amount they put into their children's lives by filling their minds with good poetry. The real old-fashioned nursery rhymes, no one would quarrel with; they have a historic value and interest and can never be allowed to die out. But it seems sad when the proud mother brings forward little Alice to say her pretty poem to a stranger, and the poem proves to be the story of how little Joe gave up his share of tart to his brother, or how Willie saved his sister from drowning, or something equally moral done into very bad verse. The same child who is repeating these mild effusions could learn and enjoy Blake's "Little Lamb," or Scott's "Rosabelle," or "The Schooner Hesperus," or "The Brook" or "Lady Clare"—and most children almost as soon as they can read should know large parts of "Horatius" and "Ivry," and "The Lady of the Lake." These are only a few specimens of poems which I know to be popular with quite little children, poems which it is a life-long pleasure to myself to have learnt before I remember learning anything. It is not, I think, desirable to set oneself deliberately to teach all this poetry to children, as we must beware of overtaxing the brain; all we have to do is to repeat it over and over again with the aid of illustrations as far as possible, and we shall soon find that the little ones can correct us if we make a mistake. We should also be careful not to explain too much; the child learns fast by rote, but his brain is, of course, not able to take in the full meaning of such poems as I have instanced without a very great effort which would certainly have a bad effect. He can understand the general drift, and can enjoy the swing of the measure, and the full meaning will dawn upon him as he gets older; it will be a constant pleasure to him to be always finding out fresh beauties in what he has learnt.

The real difficulty lies in the fact that so very few "grown-up" people know or care anything about poetry themselves, or can in the least differentiate between what is good and what is bad, and as it is very difficult, though by no means impossible, to acquire a true taste and instinct for it in later life, it follows that most people shamelessly admit that they know nothing about it, and hint, if they do not state openly, that they consider it a waste of time. Yet these same people would never venture to avow a distaste for music or pictures. It is partly fashion and partly want of training, and against both these difficulties we parents who do want our children to be filled with the love of beauty in all its noblest forms must set ourselves with all our heart. We must train ourselves in the first place; it must be our aim to know at least all the best poetry in our own language—not to be contented with a few of the easier poems of Browning who, strangely enough, is the one poet read by most intelligent people,—nor with Tennyson, whom we read because we like to have our own thoughts put into musical language—nor with Mr. Stephen Phillips, whom we read because he is new and fashionable. These are good, of course—but all poetry is not summed up even in Browning. Have we never heard of Milton, and Coleridge, and Keats? How surprised we should be in paying an afternoon call to find our hostess reading Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Would not the hostess herself be almost inclined to apologise for doing such a priggish thing, though no apology would be felt to be necessary if she were playing a Sonata of Beethoven's.

We must change all this if we want our children to have the real poetic feeling in them drawn out and developed. We must read our poets and learn them by heart till our minds are full of the best thoughts and the loveliest expressions that the world has yet uttered; and be sure that as we read and learn, our own appreciation will grow, and we shall begin to understand more fully why we must teach our little ones only what is good, and why we are doing them a real wrong if we let their minds be filled with what is poor and trivial, while all the world's richest treasures are lying ready for them to take and use as their own possessions.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009