The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Early Aesthetic Culture of the Child-Mind

by Irene Langridge
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 673-681

The education of children is a subject which probably never before has occupied the serious attention of parents and guardians to the degree it does to-day. The Greeks, indeed, regarded the subject as of paramount importance, and carefully discerned and directed the means to the achievement of the end--namely, the proportionate development and due balance of the physical and intellectual qualities of man--which was clearly apprehended by them as the ideal good that they desired to result from education. Likewise people, having a precise perception of the goal, they never lost sight of it, and from infancy their male children (we know little of the female ones) were carefully trained with a view to the attainment of this harmoniously proportioned but limited perfection. That the Greek aim was very largely realized we know for two reasons:

   (1) The limited and moderate nature of the Hellenic ideal rendered success a practical possibility.
   (2) The end desired was no vague generalization, but a point of attainment, accurately determined
on beforehand, the means to achieve which were completely adequate.

It is to this second reason that we may attribute the greater part of their success, and I would fain lay stress on the fact that to-day anxious and preoccupied as we are in a general way with the subject of education, we do not have a sort of idea, we do not direct the means to its attainment early enough in our children's lives.

Truly it is altogether a harder task for us than it was for the Greeks. The Christian religion, and the tremendous expansion of all branches of human knowledge, have extended our field of vision as they could never have imagined. We have lifted up our eyes unto the hills, those blue distant ranges that rise peak upon peak until they fade into the sky itself, and it is not one Pisgah only that tempts us to make an arduous ascent.

Our ideal of education has augmented conjointly with our vision. We see more worlds than we can conquer, and in the words of the century's great poet, "Our reach exceeds our grasp." Thus all attainment is a comparative term, as all attainment is realizable in such a partial degree.

But if grasp is impossible at least it remains with parents to indicate (to a certain extent) the direction in which they desire their children to reach. Instead of doing this early, many people--baffled by the first hasty view of the complex, subtle, and infinite nature of the conditions of our manifold civilization, out of which must be chosen the materials for culture--leave everything but the engrafting of religious principles, which, though of the utmost primary importance, should not preclude the assimilation of other information but should rather help it, for the first five or six years of the child's life.

In the matter of other culture the small rudderless bark is allowed to drift whithersoever it will, until such time as "lessons" (in reality the least important of education) begin, when the responsibility of the formation of the child's mind and tastes is transferred by the parent to the tutor or governess. And so the first years of the little one's life are only utilized to promote the most obvious and often dry religious teaching, unaided by the magic co-operation of the arts. During those years, the first impressions--received mainly through the eye but in a different ratio through all the senses--fall one by one on the heavenly clearness, the fair unwritten whiteness of the baby-mind and make their mark forever.

Never again can the unwritten whiteness be recreated. The letters are writ, the impression is engraved indelibly, by the time the parents awake to the fact, too late, alas! That under God they might have exercised a choice in what should be written; that by a careful system of suggestion and environment, they might have been largely instrumental in developing the child's fundamental taste and judgment in the right directions. And these things are of more importance with regard to the development of his moral as well as his aesthetic consciousness than are generally credited.

Most parents would agree in vaguely desiring to see their children grow up good--some would also desire wisdom and culture for them, and others greatness--but precisely how or in what degree, almost all leave to a carelessly chosen environment and the natural selection of school competition to determine.

But a great step might be taken towards these desired ends, and much pain and bewilderment saved the child in later years, if, during his nursery days, when the eager acquisitive intelligence is widely awake and hungry, right impressions of art, literature, and music could be blithely and, as it were, unconsciously assimilated by him. At that time his mother's judgment seems to him infallible, his father's wisdom entirely omniscient, and he is keenly sensitive and open to suggestion from them, more especially perhaps from his mother.

So it is about the importance of early impression and suggestion, and the relation they bear to the formation of a true culture, a right appreciation of the best things in Nature, Life and Art, that I, feeling strongly, would fain say a few words; and it is to the women who have to do with the early life of the little children, that I would mainly address my remarks.

Not, however, to her who merely desires the son or daughter to pass through life in a pleasant and respectable manner; nor to her of narrow, and I must think mistaken religious proclivities, who would wish her child to sacrifice the aesthetic and intellectual affinities of his nature, divinely implanted, to a stern and unsympathetic ascesis, that he may live, as she foolishly thinks, the more intensely and strenuously in the mutilated part that remains. (While body and soul are so inextricably interdependent, the effect of the senses on the spirit must be taken into large consideration, and a nature that is mutilated instead of developed can never be truly beautiful to God.)

But to women who desire for their children a large and noble intelligence, minds delicately sensitized at all points to receive the manifold impressions of beauty and expressiveness, which whisper of God and Infinity through the world's great Art; to such women, I am not afraid to speak out my thoughts, even though I know them to be inadequate.

As I have said before, the child no sooner begins to take notice of things than he begins to receive impressions; and why not right and beautiful ones, since they are to be the most indelible and the most easily assimilated of his life. If they are not right and beautiful ones, it is very certain that they will have to be unlearned with pain and confusion in after years, if the child wish to attain any smallest degree of true intellectual and artistic appreciation.

It seems hard through our carelessness and vacuity of mental purpose, an additional burden should be laid on the tender young shoulders.

The pathway of education will be found difficult and bewildering enough without the boy or girl having to retrace a single step of the way. A little method, a little watchful guidance, and the mother may conduct her child with serenity and gladness in the early morning of his life a good step along the golden ways of Art. When she, with confidence leaves him to choose for himself those things which he will love and worship (knowing that it has been her privilege to lay the foundations deep and strong on which he will presently erect his palace of culture), she may (only I think she is too modest) quote Keats' words, and say to those other mothers, who have been blind leaders of the blind--

    "Ah, dismal souled!
    The winds of heaven blew, the ocean rolled.
    Its gathering waves--ye felt it not. The blue
    Bared its eternal bosom, and the dew
    Of summer nights collected still to make
    The morning precious: beauty was awake!
    Why were ye not awake?"

Now, to leave general considerations for particular ones. In the matter of environment, too much discrimination can hardly be exercised in the objects selected to form the young child's "entourage."

I do not mean that I think it greatly matters what tables and chairs and suchlike necessaries are chosen for the furniture of a nursery. As a matter of fact, I would have these as plain and strong and serviceable as possible, easily to be kept clean, with as little upholstery to catch dust and harbour germs as may be.

Tables and chairs do neither stimulate the child's intellectual and imaginative nature, nor retard its development but there are other things in the chambers furnishings which do, and which therefore need our consideration. Of these important necessaries, I would place first, a fine large window, through which the little child may delightfully watch the ever changing, ever beautiful, wide spaces of the sky.

For his affinity with the sky is very intimate, and he will find in the evening and in the morning clouds, the rose and gold and purple of sunrise and of sunset, an everlasting treasure-house of poetic images and glorious visions.

Even in the midst of a great city where there are few sights to stimulate the imagination of the children, the sky is always left to them. God spreads it above the soot and the house-tops, and the little child-faces turn themselves up to the "blue fields of heaven" like flowers, to see it peopled with angels and shining hosts.

Children, like poets, see more than actual phenomena, and William Blake, possessing in his own nature the quintessence of childhood and poetry, makes this very plain. "I assert for myself," he says, "That I do not behold the outward creation. 'What?' it will be questioned, 'When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?" 'Oh! No! no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty'. I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it."

Ah! There lies the secret of the whole matter. The theory I would press home to every woman's conscience is the surrounding of her child with pictures, music, persons, that shall have a suggestive virtue for him; environment that shall enlarge his sense of the beautiful and the infinite, and that shall ensure his having through life a refuge for the spirit in the fairyland of vital poetry and art which is God's witness to Himself on earth.

It seems a trifling matter to many people, perhaps, to hang on the nursery walls badly coloured, badly printed, and worse than all, prosaic pictures. What evil results can possibly follow, may be asked, especially if the pictures represent Bible subjects? To my mind the results may be incalculably evil, for among other reasons it is notably obvious that they do not enlarge but degrade the religious idea. But I suppose I shall be voted mad to object, not only to the hanging of such pictures, but also to those faultlessly drawn and coloured, and brilliantly reproduced supplements of Christmas numbers, representing smartly dressed children tubbing unwilling terriers, riding rocking horses, &c., and other faithfully portrayed but hopelessly common-place subjects. The technique of such pictures (occasionally, too, the situation represented earn my sincere and ungrudging admiration, yet I cannot think their right place is on the nursery walls of the children of our educated and professional classes, my main reason being that such pictures suggest nothing beyond themselves. They are pleasant, cheerful, every-day facts, too slight, one is tempted to think, to be worthy of the skill, labour, and splendid painter's craft put into them.

If one were brought up on such pictures (bright and delightful as they unquestionably are in their degree), the eye would become opaque, one would for ever see with it, never, like Blake, through it, and one avenue of the senses which leads very immediately to the soul would become closed.

And the soul, sitting in the midst of its house, tremulously awaiting the messages wired along the senses to it from heaven, would at length cease to receive any communications of the Divine through the medium of art, and would become so much the meaner and poorer for the atrophy of this point in its circumference of sensibility.

The pictures for the nursery walls should be as well within the little one's comprehension as the Graphic supplements or the coloured prints of Bible scenes, yet should they be like windows into a rarer atmosphere, a more exalted and imaginative world than this jaded, workaday one of actual life.

I should like them to be chosen from reproductions, copies, or if no better can be afforded, photographs of the old masterpieces of the world's art. For many reasons--first because there are no pictures so simple, so bland, and at the same time so deeply suggestive, so true to the essential requirements of great art, as are some of the old Italian masters. They speak with a certain urbanity and romantic expressiveness that pierces directly to the ingenuous child-soul; they arrest the attention and grave themselves on the memory by the queer enchanted light and colour on them, and by the unusual and quaint character of their composition. And through all these mere technical attributes burns the fire of an informing and potent spirit of youthful poetry and inspiration never since surpassed, though it has been occasionally equaled.

That is one reason. Another is the following:--There can be no precision and no "allgemeinheit" about a culture that is not based on a knowledge of the great works (in Art, Literature and Music) of the past, on whose shoulders our Modern Arts are now standing.

Therefore, it is to be desired that during the first facile stage of the child's education he shall become acquainted with some of the early great work that has been bequeathed with some of the early great work that has been bequeathed us. As he advances in age and knowledge, he will easily follow up from these simple but great beginnings the chequered history of pictorial art. He will advance without bewilderment or hesitancy, discerning the true from the false with unfailing delicacy, because his first love will have been set on right work, poetical thought, harmonious simplicity and great ideas--not merely the symbols which should express ideas.

I would begin with two or three pictures in the nursery only, enough for the child to dwell on without confusion of thought, and to learn each one by heart. Let us take for choice, say, carbon prints of two of the most beautiful of Melozzo da Forli's inspired angels from the Sacristy of the Vatican.

Perhaps also a group of the angels kneeling in Paradise (such a Paradise of flowery lawns, and sylvan glades, and wondrous birds!), from that entirely joyous chapel wall in the Riccardi Palace, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. No child that was ever born had the least difficulty in understanding the supernatural and adorable guardianship of angels.

The idea and belief in angels appears to them the most natural thing in the world, and this fact is significant, for while the years are few and tender, it is an easy matter for the child "to rise from things here to a reminiscence of the true beauty" of those things, spirits, attributes, which "Really Are," and which Plato supposes we all have seen in a previous state; thus accounting for the fact that our anticipation of the beautiful and the good precedes our experience.

So let the child have glorious angel-forms before him to speak to him of Infinity, and to rivet his connection with things outside the factitious world; and to the few carefully chosen pictures of angels, let us add one Madonna and Child--say, the ineffably tender and majestic Granduca of Raphael, or the tondo by Filippino Lippi of the Madonna and Child--with angels. The garden precincts, enclosed in a balustrade and lattice of roses, the scene without, quaintly disposed in hilly ground and murky cypresses, the atmosphere so luminous, clear and exhaling a peaceful enchantment, will appeal with alacrity to the child's easily stimulated fancy; while the sweet Mother and her Infant, on whom the angels shower rose leaves, cannot fail to win his baby-love. One of these, or many equally beautiful and suitable pictures of the same subject, may be chosen so that the child unconsciously collects about this image of the central truth of the Christian religion, an aroma of intimate love and delicate poetry, that shall remain with it forever. But let us keep from the nursery walls all Crucifixions, all Pietas, and all difficult intellectual and artistic conceptions, which can only be comprehended by him after the passage of years, and the experiences of maturity. He has to take art like life--step by step.

When our little ones are older and need and can take in more pictures, let us add to our collection some of perhaps another sort. Fairies, for instance--such fairies as William Blake saw among the green wheat stems, or riding the winds, or dancing light-footed on flowers; or again, like those delicate beings of sun and dew that Walter Crane has pictured in his Flora's feast--a riot of extravagantly beautiful fancy, peculiarly adapted to call forth a responsive thrill in the sensitive child-mind. Mr. G. F. Watts' foamy "Sea-horses," and many of Sir E. Burne-Jones' exquisite pictures might be included. Such kinds of pictures as I have indicated will not only train the little one's eye to a nice appreciation of linear beauty and purity, but will also serve to keep open the door of communication between himself and the heaven he has so lately left.

I have in this article discussed the impressions which he receives through the organ of vision only, because they are the first impressions that come to a normal child, but I hope to have an opportunity later on of suggesting some consideration which might prove of use, as to the method of first introducing the child to some of the world's great music and literature, so that he may assimilate a few simple guiding ideas, without strain or effort, from which he can advance in a natural sequence of education to a knowledge and appreciation of the greatest conceptions, the highest work in both arts. For after all, the true end of the education we have in view is nothing else than that old idea of Plato's, whose words--far from being obsolete, Christianity and our complicated civilization have only discovered to be more pregnant and more profoundly full of wisdom than was formerly comprehended--

"He who has been led in the discipline of love," says the martinean Sybil to Socrates, "Beholdin beautiful objects in the right order, will on a sudden behold a beauty wonderful in its nature, that towards which indeed the former exercises were all designed, being first of all ever-existent; having neither beginning nor end; neither growing nor fading away; and then, not beautiful in one way, unbeautiful in another; beautiful in this relation, unlovely in that; to some but not to others.

"Nor again, will that beauty appear to him to be beautiful as a face, or hands, or anything else that belongs to the body; nor as any kind of reasoning or science; nor as being resident in anything else, as in a living creature or the earth or the sky or any other thing; but as being Itself by Itself, ever in a single form with Itself; all other beautiful things participating in It, that while they begin and cease to be, that neither becomes more nor less nor suffers any change.

Whenever then, anyone beginning from things here below through a right practice of love ascending, begins to discern that other beauty, he will almost have reached the end.

"For this in truth is the right method of proceeding toward the doctrine of love, or of being conducted therein by another--beginning from these beautiful objects here below, ever to be going up higher, with that other end in view; using them as steps of a ladder mounting from the love of one fair person to the love of two, and from the love of two to the love of all; and from the love of beautiful persons to the love of beautiful employments, to the love of beautiful kinds of knowledge, till he passes from degrees of knowledge to that knowledge which is the knowledge of nothing else save the absolute Beauty itself, and knows it at length, as in itself it really is."

Proofread by Stephanie H. 2008