Poetry and Education

“The thing is,” said Charlotte Mason in a book she wrote for children, “to keep your eye upon words and wait to feel their force and beauty; and, when words are so fit that no other words can be put in their places, so few that none can be left out without spoiling the sense, and so fresh and musical that they delight you, then you may be sure that you are reading Literature, whether in prose or poetry. A great deal of delightful literature can be recognised only by this test.” (volume 4)

I was 10 or 11 years old, and had come down with a case of pneumonia so bad that on Christmas morning I had to be told to open my presents, and as soon I had done so, I went back to bed. Later I was taken to the hospital with a temperature of 106 and I received horribly painful penicillin shots around the clock for the next several days. My parents both worked and they had my younger brothers, who were not allowed in the hospital, to care for. They brought some of my presents to the hospital to keep me company during the long, boring hours between shots.  I had to stay a week.  The first three days I needed to be there because I was just that sick.  Once the rounds of antibiotics by injection too effect, I needed to stay because the hospital would not release me until I ate all my meals- I had lost a lot of weight, and I was a gawky stick figure of a child.   But I had hardly eaten much before I got pneumonia, and I wasn’t going to start then (I got over it, unfortunately).  Finally, my father would come to the hospital at meal times to eat my meals for me so the right boxes were ticked off and I could come home.
Meanwhile, I was incredibly bored and I had nothing to do. There were only soap operas and game shows on daytime television in the seventies, mostly deemed inappropriate for children.  There were no cell phones or electronic games to speak of.  I didn’t have a lot of energy even if a nurse had been free to play a game with me.  I had my Christmas presents, and I  savoured one gift in particular.  It was  a marvelous anthology of poetry from my Aunt. She always gave lovely gifts.

I read it all the way through, and then began again.  And again.

One one of his visits to the hospital my dad used a series of dots and dashes on paper to teach me the rhyme scheme for limericks and other forms of poetry.  I wrote very bad poetry and even worse limericks, but they scanned.

I pushed away the horror of needles and the smell of disinfectant with Tennyson’s ballads and Wordsworth’s daffodils and other wonders. I hugged Emily Dickinson to myself like a longlost friend. I imitated Lear’s limericks (very badly).
The Light Brigade faced death squarely in the eye, and I, too, could face my own ordeals inspired by their courage, even though my ordeal was the far more humiliating needle in the buttocks six times every 24 hours. By the time the ordeal was over, I had so many bruises behind me they had to start giving me the injections in my thighs, but I was forever filled with the morally bolstering and soul-warming gift of poetry.

Over the next few years I read that book so many times it fell apart, and then I read it to my children and bought a replacement, twice, when it, too, fell apart.I taught some of those poems to my daughters and they are teaching some of them to my grandchildren.  “Is poetry important for today?” somebody might ask me. “How will it help them get a job?” ” Isn’t it old fashioned?”  ” I don’t like it, so I don’t see why I need to teach it to my kids. I turned out just fine without it.”

I don’t even know what to say.  We are standing on opposite sides of an incredibly wide and deep chasm and we don’t speak the same language.   Because no, you didn’t turn out just fine without it, or you wouldn’t need to ask that question. You wouldn’t limit education by equating it only with ‘necessary for a job’.  You wouldn’t limit what you teach your children based on what you like or dislike, know or do not know.   It isn’t that you are a bad person, a dumb person, a worthless person.   I am shocked by such questions, but I don’t want to mock those who ask. I want to cry for them.

They’ve been defrauded, hurt, wounded, and they don’t know it.


“…we have set up a little tin god of efficiency in that niche within our private pantheon which should be occupied by personality. We trouble ourselves about the uses of the young person to society. As for his own use, what he should be in and for himself, why, what matter? Because, say we, if we fit him to earn his living we fit him also to be of service to the world and what better can we do for him personally? We forget that it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God shall man live,––whether it be spoken in the way of some truth of religion, poem, picture, scientific discovery, or literary expression; by these things men live and in all such is the life of the spirit. The spiritual life requires the food of ideas for its daily bread.”  (Charlotte Mason)

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