The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Wordsworth's "Immortal Ode."

(Essay on Stanzas V.--VIII. See "Prizes," October Number.)
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 864

In all times, and probably in all countries, there have been thinkers, philosophers, students of human nature, who have attached much significance to the usual characteristics of infancy; have watched the children's little ways with interest, and built widely-differing systems thereupon. The very same phenomena which suggested to Wordsworth this glorious ode, this most spiritual hymn, have since his day been brought forward in support of the modern theories of inherited tendency. About these, however, science has not yet uttered her latest word. If Dr. Weismann's recently-published "Essays on Heredity" have as much weight as their reception by eminent biologists would lead us to suppose, it may soon be evident that too much importance has been attached to hereditary influence--that "acquired characters are not transmitted"--and that, in fact, we come into this world much less bound, and biased, and fore-determined, and much more open to surrounding influences, than we have lately been allowed to hope. But, however that may be, materialists will still suggest, if they do not assert, that variations in the form and constitution of the physical brain, and impressions physically made thereon, are amply sufficient to account for all the celestial light," "the glory and the dream," which gave to our poet such consoling glimpses of "that imperial palace whence he came."

Well, let the scientists--honest men and noble workers--marshal their facts; we can afford to welcome all new knowledge of Nature's ways, all new light on her hidden working in the bodily frames we wear--but until they can tell us what Life is, there must always be, for some of us, a limit to their explanations, and a region where materialistic theories utterly fail. In this day, if we would "save our souls alive," we must keep in touch with the spiritual seers, we must turn often from the Biologist to the Poet until we share his serene assurance; until over us, too, our immortality broods like the day,

    A presence which is not to be put by.

Except in certain passages of the Bible, where shall we find a grander protest against materialism than in the first lines of Stanza V. and the whole of Stanza IX.? A protest all the more powerful because written with no controversial or dogmatic intention--because it is pure poetry, pure inspired assertion. The poet speaks "as one having authority," of "the soul that rises with us, our life's star," or "God, who is our Home," of high instincts and first affections, which, "be they what they may" (is this a dismissal of possible scientific theories?)

    Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
    Are yet a master light of all our seeing.

How did Wordsworth become assured of these "truths that wake to perish never"? How was his spiritual vision trained till it became "the Faith that looks through Death"? By solitary and devout communion with God, and with Nature--to whose influences he was (in his own beautiful words)

    Obedient as a lute
    That waits upon the touches of the wind,

and by a life-long, reverent, keenly sympathetic study of our human nature in its simplest and most unsophisticated forms, and especially in children. Blessed are they, and sure to visited by revelations deep and true, who have grace given them to watch the ways of young children with clear eyes and an understanding heart. To such this ode will be for ever precious as the only approach yet made to any adequate expression of certain primal realities which "lie far hidden from the use of words"; and they will doubtless have also among their treasures Vaughan's sweet but shallower strain--

    Happy those early days when I
    Shined in mine angel infancy
    While yet I had not walked above
    A mile or so from my first Love,
    And, looking back at that short space,
    Could see the brightness of His face.

In Stanza VII, we have a true and lovely picture of the way children, when not overloaded with toys and ready-made amusements, will "play at" the things which their elders find so serious and so toilsome. Every mother can supplement and illustrate this from her own nursery. If what we see were all, perhaps imitation and inherited tendency would suffice to explain this eager parody of grown-up life. But what we see is not all, and the poet goes on to say--

    Thou whose exterior semblance doth belie
    Thy soul's immensity, &c.

Here comes in the reward of closer and more sympathetic observation, and here will avail also the memories of our own infancy. The most unspoiled and childlike children have one priceless possession in common with the greatest poets. It is not to be confounded with mere inventive fancy. We may call it "soul" or "creative imagination," but it is too high and subtle ever to be caught or analyzed--ever to be exhaustively labelled in the psychologist's museum. You, ordinary observer, watch the child's game, and think what a clever imitative little monkey it is, but come with us, let us pass through the secret portals of sympathy and memory into the child's inner world. How the sky rises! What a new radiance floods everything! Here the commonest surroundings are indeed "appareled in celestial light"! From the outside you saw a little sunny-haired boy with a comical expression of dignity and satisfaction,Riding up and down the garden on your walking-stick, and you smile to see him now and then compress his lips and pull hard at imaginary rains or give a sudden bound, to speak low to his horse, and smile triumphantly. But now--you are flying--a wild horseman, over boundless plains; Indians are on your track, the wind whistles in your hair, the steed becomes unmanageable, but you rule him with a magic word, you win the race, you have a glorious time!

Or, you saw, in the nursery corner, a tiny girl going through a solemn performance, feeding, dressing, scolding, cuddling, an old wooden doll. But now--you are moved and awed as you feel the passion of motherly love throbbing in her heart, and see what a halo surrounds that dolly, and how real are its wants and pleasures, and the speeches--of love or of naughtiness--put into its mouth by the little mother, yet none the less believed in and responded to. Here, perhaps, nothing but memory can help us; but the love of my old "Rosa" with the black curls and the pink cotton frock, still lingers with me, and it is hard to believe that she was only wax and wood.

You hear the shouts of your children, and you think they are playing in the garden; but look again; are you sure it is only a garden? I remember the time when it was a pathless enchanted forest. I was Robin Hood, and though only Friar Tuck and Alan a Dale actually followed at my heels, I commanded a troop of other bold outlaws, and many a deer we hunted, many a maiden we rescued, many a shining castle we saw in the twilight.

Was that only an asparagus bed through the lofty arcades and dim vistas of which we crept on hands and knees, clutching our bows and arrows? Was that only the striped kitten, when the forest suddenly became a jungle, and we fled, breathless, from the tiger? Can we now find any words to convey, even to ourselves, the intense delight of those days, the glamour and the witchery of them.

    Turn wheresoe'er I may,
    By night or day,
    The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

But this, again, is not all. There are shrines and temples in that child-world, to be very reverently approached by us. The things our little ones tell us when the light is turned down, and mother lingers a moment to hear the whispered confidence,--these are too tender and too sacred for the pages of a magazine. But they make us feel how literally true it is that

    Heaven lies about us in our infancy.

And here again, memory lends us understanding. For the child who used to be awakened by the first twitter of birds in the ivy, to dress quickly and steal away from the sleeping house into the still, solemn brightness of the early summer morning, to run down the long, dewy lawn to the river side, creep out along a broad, overhanging tree trunk to a sanctuary among the shining willow leaves, and there to sit thinking and dreaming,--holding sweet and serious converse with Him who reveals Himself to children and simple folk, whilst thrushes and blackbirds woke up one by one and the river-ripples made "fairy-lamps" below the swinging little feet,--has life held for that child any hour so high and solemn since, so remote from the weariness of earth, so full of pure, peaceful, fruitful joy? Yet

    Though nothing can bring back the hour
    O splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,

let us go on with our poet to give thanks

    That in our embers, is something that doth live,

and yet more thanks for the conviction that these shadowy recollections are also Divine previsions, and that as we pass the hot noon of life where we toiled in "the light of common day," this prevision grows and brightens, we find ourselves more and more in sympathy with the children, the unearthly light which erewhile attended us from the east, comes again to meet us from the west, and that even now, by faithful communication with God, with Nature, and with "these little ones,"

    Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
    Which brought us hither,
    Can in a moment travel thither,
    And see the children sport up on the shore,
    And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Are there any lessons here for parents and teachers,--any educational hints for us? I think there are. For one thing, we may remember that this early vividness of imagination and keenness of sensation affects the child's appreciation of literature, and should not be dulled and wasted on second-rate material. Let children browse pretty freely in good libraries. Put Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge, Burns, Keats, in their way. Here and there the visionary gleam will irradiate a passage with "the light that never was on land or sea"--and they have found a treasure for life. The same thing read ten years later might have fallen dead and cold on their minds. Have we not all some such pet bits of description, of power, or of pathos, which carry us back to the enchanted land, though others wonder why we care for them? I lately found an old exercise-book, where I had written out in a round, childish hand, these lines from Coleridge:--

    Here, sweet spirit, here the spell,
    Lest a blacker charm compel,
    So shall the midnight breezes swell
    With thy deep long-lingering knell.

    And at even evermore,
    In a chapel by the shore,
    Shall the chanters sad and saintly,
    Yellow tapers burning faintly,
    Doleful masses chant for thee,
              Miserere Domine!

    Hark! The cadence dies away
    On the yellow moonlit sea,
    The boatmen rest their oars, and say,
              Miserere Domine!

I remember finding that in my fathers library, and though no effort can now recall the whole of what I felt when I copied it out, enough is left to make me wish that my readers could share it. In the same book I find this gem from Tennyson:--

    One showed an iron coast, and angry waves;
    You seemed to hear them climb and fall,
    And roar rock-twarted under bellowing caves,
    Beneath the windy wall.

and a line from Wordsworth's "Prelude"--

    The frost rage bitterly, with keen and silent tooth.

A child of twelve, who finds these things out with delight, can never be robbed of that first joy, and it is a mistake and an insult to think that children must always be written down to, as though they were not "next of kin" to the great inspired writers. And, in religion, let us take great care not to mistake a child's familiarity with God for irreverence. Even if to take forms which strike us as grotesque, it is not always well to interpose a check. If your little boy of three or four--when you visit his crib in the morning -- should say, as mine did to me, joyfully waving his tiny handkerchief, "Here it is all safe, mother. I losed it every night, so I asked God to take care of it, and it isn't lost to-day!"--let him see no amusement in your smile, only congratulation. Forbid them not -- surely their loving literal faith is more acceptable than the distant worship some would have them learn. We are not in their world -- we do not know all they see and hear.

A little boy I know, two or three days after his father's death, was found by his mother (who in all her grief had not forgotten the child's birthday), standing on a high chair, and holding his new toys over his head. He was "showing them to father."

Let not our educational zeal make us too busy. Let us ensure to our little ones a large share of the liberty and leisure in which their highest education is carried on by teachers to us invisible. Of course there must be systematic instruction, they must learn application and self-control, and acquire habits of orderly study, but let them be a great deal out of doors. Smile upon such games as our old "Robin Hood," which lasted many a summer through with newly-invented episodes every day. Our mother was wise enough to let us have green jackets, bows and arrows, little bugles, and wooden daggers -- not to mention real camp-fires in our den!

Let children ramble--alone if they like--in garden, field, and orchard. They are receiving impressions which will abide with them, for strength and consolation, long after they have forgotten the lengths of the rivers of Asia, or the list of exceptions to a grammatical rule. When a merry child's attention is arrested by some new wonder heard, or glory seen, and we notice how the bright chatter gives place to a pondering look, and the clear eyes grow wistful--then it is often our highest wisdom to be silent too--to stand aside and wait, and give the child-soul room to grow, remembering that once we, too, could

    In those weaker glories spy
    Some shadows of eternity,
    And felt through all our fleshly dress
    Bright shouts of everlastingness.


Typed by Angela, June 2017