This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How They Taught Poetry in 1905

            Up in the Seattle area for my nephew’s wedding this past weekend, I found myself with a little time to kill before we had to show up, so I dropped into the Upper Case bookstore in Snohomish and looked through the used book section. All too often such a place will have little else but recycled paperback bestsellers, but this joint was the real deal.
            One of my sisters (not the nephew’s mother) just came out with a book of poetry and wasn’t able to come out from New York for the wedding, so I checked the poetry section to see if I might get a little something for her. That was where I came across Graded Poetry, Fourth Year, published in 1905 by the Charles E. Merrill Co.
            It was a slender volume, edited by Katherine D. Blake, Principal of the Girls Department at Public School No. 6 in New York and Georgia Alexander, a Supervising Principal in Indianapolis. One of them presumably wrote the introduction, and since the copyright has expired, I’ll quote from it liberally:

Listen. Just Listen.

            “Poetry is the chosen language of childhood and youth. The baby repeats words again and again for the mere joy of their sound: the melody of nursery rhymes gives a delight which is quite independent of the meaning of the words. Not until youth approaches maturity is there an equal pleasure in the rounded periods of elegant prose. It is in childhood therefore that the young mind should be stored with poems whose rhythm will be a present delight and whose beautiful thoughts will not lose their charm in later years.
            “The selections for the lowest grades are addressed primarily to the feeling for verbal beauty, the recognition of which in the mind of the child is fundamental to the plan of this work. The editors have felt that the inclusion of critical notes in these little books intended for elementary school children would be not only superfluous, but in the degree in which critical comment drew the child’s attention from the text, subversive of the desired result. Nor are there any notes on methods. The best way to teach children to love a poem is to read it inspiringly to them. The French say: ”The ear is the pathway to the heart.” A poem should be so read that it will sing itself in the hearts of the listening children.”

No Dumbing Down

            They don’t make too many educators like that any more, nor do they publish textbooks like this for the teaching of poetry. Perhaps you were wondering what sort of poetry fourth graders read in public school 108 years ago. Well, you might recognize some of the authors:
            William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina G. Rossetti, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant, Helen Hunt Jackson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others.
            Of course some of those writers were deemed advanced enough that they were held back for reading until the second semester of fourth grade.
            Generally speaking, it’s a trap to believe that things were somehow better back in the good old days, but sometimes you can’t help it. I wonder how many fourth graders today are exposed to the breadth and depth of poetry reflected in this book, and taught with the humane understanding shown in the quoted introduction. Far too few, I suspect.