On the Teaching Of Poetry, by Mary A. Woods

typewriter poetryPage 111 of Volume 2 of the Parents’ Review, 1891/92

On the Teaching of Poetry
by Mary A. Woods
Headmistress of The Clifton High School

Most people will agree with me that poetry ought to be taught. Doubtless there are still some who hold that it 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 the minority, and I do not propose to deal with them today. I must assume that poetry is good, and that, being good, it yet cannot be too good for our children. The points I wish to raise are the objects and the methods of teaching it.

Why do we teach poetry? Some will say, “Because of the moral lessons inculcated by means of it.” Others, “Because it strengthens the memory, and – if only hard enough- the reasoning powers.” Others, “Because it illustrates history, or grammar, or etymology,” or “Because it affords useful practice in analysis of composition.” Now, I want to-day to plead for the teaching of poetry for its own sake as one of the fine arts, ranking with music and painting and the drama, and having similar aims and uses. We do not, if we are wise, demand a moral, in teh ordinary sense of the word, in the pictures we show our children, and the music we play to them. We demand that the artist should be inspired, that he should be a true artist, touched with the fire of genius, and then- let it be a comedy of Shakespeare’s or a landscape of Turner’s or even a dance tune of Chopin’s- we use it fearlessly. “Better such things,” we say, “Than the sickly apologues, the so-called ‘religious’ prints, and the ‘sacred’ music, too often though good enough for children.” “And so,” I would add, “Better the nursery ballad, if only it has the right ring about it, than the doggerel hymn.” This may seem a strong thing to say, but if we accept the doctrine for some of the arts, why not for all? Whatever the reason, poetry is certainly the art that has suffered most cruelly at our hands. You remember the story of the commentator who was greatly exercised as to how the Duke in “As You Like It” could find “books in the running brooks” and “sermons in stones.” It was a curious phenomenon, he thought, even in an enchanted forest which produced lions and palms. Suddenly a light broke in upon him. Evidently, the words had got transposed. What Shakespeare really wrote must have been-

stones in the running brooks
Sermons in books

“See my dear young friends” – we can fancy him saying- “how the Immortal Bard, with equal lucidity and truth, calls attention to a not unnatural phenomenon. If we look into brooks, we shall, in all probability, find stones; if we look into books, we shall, only too possibly, find sermons.” Well, we don’t treat our poetry exactly like this, but what we can do to spoil it we can. In this same play of “As You Like It” Touchstone says to Audrey, “I would the gods had made thee poetical!”

Ah! it is not “the gods,” it is not Nature, that has refused to make our children poetical. It is we who, with our petty maxims and theories, to say nothing of our prosaic lives and worldly ideals, have done what in us lies to destroy the poetry that was born with them. We give them any doggerel that will, as we think, convey a moral or otherwise useful lesson, we repress the instinct for time and for tune, for music and for colour, for the “something not understood,” which are of the very essence of poetry, and by paraphrase and analysis and elaborate explanations reduce all to the dull level of prose. The temple stands before us, ‘ethereal, beautiful, reared- like Milton’s- to music; and, instead of entering and worshipping, we break down the walls and calcine its stones, and submit them to chemical analysis, and imagine we have discovered the secret. Or, to change the metaphor, we are asked for the essence of the flower, and we pull it to pieces, and examine its petals and its stamens and pronounce triumphantly on its order and sub-order, the genus and its species, but the colour and the perfume that made up its life, where are they? The flower-spirit had shrouded himself in these, and when they died, he unfolded his wings and fled, and what remains is no flower at all, only lifeless dust.

To be continued

I would venture to say this is probably the same Mary A. Woods who wrote Scenes from Shakespeare For Use In Schools, published in 1898

M. A. Woods, Head Mistress of the Clifton School for Girls is also the compiler of The Third Poetry Book (as well as the first and second Poetry Books), published in 1888 and dedicated to her sixth form.  In the preface she says that this volume is intended for the upper forms of High School, but may also, she hopes, be useful to those who have left school and are reading on their own.

She sees no point in including excerpts from Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, the first two books of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, because naturally these great works would be read independently.

She also says of this volume that it is more personal than the previous two, written more specifically to school children. But this volume:

I must confess that I make no claim to have included ” the best, and the best only.” It would have been superfluous to attempt what has been so splendidly attempted already, and even if The Golden Treasury had not been written, I should have felt myself quite unqualified for so serious a task. I have simply done within the limits of publication what all of us who are lovers of poetry do without those limits. I have made a selection such as has pleased myself, and may, I hope, please others, and be of use to them in making their own.

It is her hope that her third volume will satisfy her readers. She wants them to go out and find more poems for themselves in addition to those she has selected.

If you found this subject interesting, you may also enjoy our Poetry With Your Little Peasants post

You may also be interested in some of our other posts on Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts, grammar, composition, spelling, etc.

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