On the Moral Instruction of Children Through the Reading of Poetry; or the Inculcation of Manly Virtues & Feminine Graces Through Verse
Oooh, how very Victorian of me. And truth be told, 19th century poetry is very suitable for children.
L’il Joffre and I had another bath-time poetry reading session last night, which reminded me I should post about this.
My daughter is eight, my oldest boy is seven. Of course, the bath-time readings are limited to the males (the younger ones will hang out with us occasionally). Except for the occasional book of poems for children from the library, or readings of humorous collections such as T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the kids’ exposure to poetry for a while was L’il Joffre reading me poems I enjoyed, which I didn’t think unsuitable to his age. Billy Collins, T. S. Eliot, G. M. Hopkins, or maybe some selections from an anthology. My personal favorites.
I soon realized, however, that I was missing out on two opportunities. I now take those opportunities, and you might want to as well.
1. Read ballads or epic poetry to your kids. It’ll be a while before we tackle anything truly epic, such as The Poem of the Cid, or Beowulf, or even The Ballad of the White Horse. The kids are reading prose versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey for school, but of course, that doesn’t count as poetry. But I do think their appetite is already whet for such things when they’re ready. Several weeks ago we all sat down in the living room to hear me read Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They loved it, and are still talking about it. I stopped every few verses so we could talk about what was happening and to make sure everyone was following the story. Even the five-year-old was able to follow the poem that way. We’ve read The Highwayman and The Lady of Shallot, which my daughter especially enjoyed (she has a Loreena McKennitt album in her room with sung versions of both poems).
The children’s own ability to read poetry has begun to improve as they hear me read. Joffre, for example, is now getting over his annoying habit of ending lines in an overly-dramatic whisper. The children have always imitated my rhetorical style when reading prose stories to each other, and the example of poetry emphasizes all the more the importance of reading well for effect.
Their sense of rhythm in particular is improving. And the potential to mix this with music, particularly in our family, which seriously lacks any musical gifting, is enormous. I’ve mentioned the McKennitt ballads. You can work in the other direction as well. I’m a big fan of folk ballads, so reading versions of songs like John Henry, Barbara Allen, or The Dreadful Wind and Rain is a great way to expose them to good music.
And of course, as with fairy tales or any other folklore, ballads and epic poetry are an excellent way to place the kids in the story-context of their own lives…it helps them to understand that they are part of a people, and a part of humanity.
2. This one is kind of new on me. I use poetry as a tool of moral instruction. I don’t necessarily mean that poetry can teach you what is right and what is wrong, although that is certainly true, as it is with any kind of story-telling. And it’s true of any good poetry. I’m not speaking strictly of story-formats of poetry, as I was in the section above.
The other day, when Joffre offered to read me some poetry (he values the dad time, poetry or no), I decided to take an opportunity. I wanted him to read some poems that were particularly English, because we’d been talking a bit about the English context of our cultural background. I love the English story, and I am of the opinion that a sense of Americanness without a sense of Englishness can lead to some unfortunate historical and philosophical myopia. With that in mind I had him read some martial English poetry. L’il Joffre read me Rupert Brooke’s The Dead (“blow out, you bugles”) and The Soldier (” there’s some corner of a foreign field/ that is for ever England”). We read Alan Seeger’s I Have A Rendezvous With Death (“I to my pledged word am true/ I shall not fail that rendezvous”). We read Kipling’s Recessional (“God of our fathers, known of old”).
The session ended up not really being about Englishness. Which I suppose I should have foreseen. The conversation ended up revolving around the ethical and moral elements of the poetry.
Okay, so Alan Seeger was actually an American who served in the French Foreign Legion.
None of the poems we read were stories, really. But they painted vivid pictures of certain kinds of men, and a certain ethos. Do I want a British imperialist for a son? Of course not. But I would like a son who has a sense of duty, of honor, of courage. I loved the things we got to talk about through the reading of the poems. And this is beside the basic educational comprehension stuff (“Who was taking the writer’s hand?” “Death.” “That’s right.”). We talked about everything from burial rites to keeping promises to what happens when a nation forgets God.
Poetry as a tool of moral instruction. I just love saying that. So Victorian of me. But also very fun of me, no? They already love reading poetry, so this actually ends up being an enjoyable way for them to learn about what is meet and proper so to do. Like basketball.
I just gave two didactic reasons for the reading of poetry with your children. But of course, there are many other reasons, not least that which is common to every art: the glimpse of beauty.
Which is why we might have to read High Flight this evening.