Why Poetry Deserves More Hype
"The best thoughts of the best minds taking form as literature, and at its highest as poetry." Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 157.
The famous German poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” Charlotte Mason also believed that poetry deserves an important place in our lives. Throughout her volumes, she quotes lines from Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge, Keats, Milton and many other great thinkers who provide living ideas through their poetry. This post addresses the why and the how when it comes to including poetry in our curriculum.
The Purpose of Poetry
Poetry brings color to life and stirs our emotions in the same way music and art does. And oftentimes poets put words to feelings that we cannot easily express. John Stuart Mill said that poetry is essentially "man's thoughts tinged by his emotions." Mary .A Woods, a headmistress of the Clifton High School in England describes poetry as "the musical expression, by means of words, of thought charged with emotion. I use the word 'musical' not of course in its technical sense, but as applied to rime and to rhythm, the sweet consonances and cadences of verse; and the word 'emotion', as applied to all forms of human feeling, from the impulses of love or of sorrow to the subtleties of foreboding or regret."¹
Excellent poetry will touch our souls and feed our minds with living ideas that not only allow us to feel deeply, but can go so far as to enable us to experience historical events, get a taste of a faraway culture, tug at our sense of injustice, or simply connect us to God's creation in unexpected ways. Poetry puts us in touch with feelings and emotions we might otherwise never experience; it brings knowledge to life. Charlotte Mason says "the magic of poetry makes knowledge vital, and children and grown-ups quote a verse which shall add blackness to the ashbud, tender wonder to that 'flower in the crannied wall,' a thrill to the song of the lark."² In other words, it enhances and provides meaning to all that we see and experience in this life. Therefore, it would be a tragedy to deprive our children (and ourselves!) of regularly experiencing beautiful poetry.
Cultivating a Taste For Poetry
As with so many other important habits and affections in life, we cannot expect our children to acquire a taste for poetry if we, ourselves, do not model an appreciation for poetry. One P.N.E.U. article puts it this way, "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"
The same article goes on to say, "You cannot begin to train a child's taste too soon...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."³
Education is an atmosphere. As a result, when a love of poetry is infused into the atmosphere of our homes, our children will catch on. Education is a discipline and often the best things in life (such as cultivating a taste for poetry) require hard work, steady effort, and stepping outside of our comfort zone. Education is a life and our lives will be greatly enhanced through choosing to prioritize poetry - even if we don't understand every word. Most of us are not comfortable with poetry because we lack experience with it and are intimidated. The irony is, the only way to change that is work on becoming more familiar with poets and their poetry.
Poetry in School
So, how does this play out practically in our school days? Charlotte Mason explains that poetry is not taught in isolation; on the contrary, poetry provides insight into history, world cultures, geography, citizenship and a variety of other subjects. She states, "A point which I should like to bring before the reader is the peculiar part which poetry plays in making us aware of this thought of the ages, including our own. Every age, every epoch, has its poetic aspect, its quintessence, as it were, and happy the people who have a Shakespeare, a Dante, a Milton, a Burns, to gather up and preserve its meaning as a world possession."⁴ We can get a very real sense of who these people were and the times they were living in through engaging with their work. Poetry brings the life and times of the age alive.
Charlotte Mason also thought students should have ample opportunities to read poetry aloud in order "to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance."⁵ There's something uniquely beautiful about poetry that's read aloud with special attention to the way in which it is read - be it intonation, rhythm, etc.
In addition to benefiting from read aloud and providing context for history, quality poetry is ideal to use for copy work, transcription, and dictation passages. Having students study and dictate poems provides opportunity for the living ideas to take root in students' hearts and minds. Keeping these writings together in what Charlotte Mason calls a Book of Mottoes (or commonplace book) is a worthy endeavor. She states, "A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another...a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure."⁶
She goes on to explain how this process plays out, "In the reading of the Bible, of poetry, of the best prose, the culling of mottoes is a delightful and most stimulating occupation, especially if a motto book be kept, perhaps under headings, perhaps not. It would not be a bad idea for children to make their own year-book, with a motto for every day in the year culled from their own reading. What an incentive to a good day it would be to read in the morning as a motto of our very own choice and selection, and not the voice of an outside mentor: 'Keep ye the law; be swift in all obedience'! The theme suggests endless subjects for consideration and direct teaching: for example, lives with a keynote; Bible heroes; Greek heroes; poems of moral inspiration; poems of patriotism, duty, or any single moral quality; moral object-lessons; mottoes and where to find them, etc."⁷ Talk about inspiring virtuous character! Imagine if, at the end of their education, our children could take with them a decades' worth of virtuous quotes, poems that touched their soul in meaningful ways.
In the end, if we choose to forego poetry either because we're intimidated or because we simply don't feel it's important, we are robbing our children (and ourselves!) of the opportunity to be immersed in truth, goodness, and beauty. The reality is 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?"⁸
¹,³,⁸ Simpson, J.G.The Teaching of Poetry to Children, The Parents Review, vol. 12, p. 879-883. https://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR12p879TeachingPoetry.shtml.
²,⁴Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 328, 275, 313
⁵,⁶ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 227, 139.
⁷Charlotte Mason, School Educaiton, p. 145.