Page images

study of good poetry, of learning it by heart in particular as a sure standard of reference in such matters. Above all he recommends the inimitable Racine, never mind whether he understands him or not.' And he goes on, 'I did not understand him when my mother used to come and sit on my bed, and repeat from him, and put me to sleep with her beautiful voice to the soand of this incomparable music. I knew hundreds of lines of him before I could read.' Perhaps our English ears are not conscious of any very great power of attraction in the melody of the French Alexandrine ; but there, in De Maistre's words, we have at any rate the principle, the 'beautiful voice, and what seemed to the little listener the 'incomparable music. In selecting poetry for children, smoothness of rhythm, and directness, simplicity of rhyme, are the first qualities to look for. Even intelligibility is, up to a certain point, a matter of secondary importance. For what their little intellects can really take hold of and entertain must necessarily be so very small and fragmentary, that to ensure perfect intelligibility, intelligibility of the very letter, one would have to narrow one's range almost to the limits of nothingness. One of the most fertile and eloquent of living poets has recently made public proclamation of his faith, that 'metre is the crowning question of poetry. Perhaps some of us are still hardly ready to accept this as the last word on the matter, though we are many of us, no doubt, tending very rapidly that way: but with children it is certainly so.

Whence then arises, and how is perfected the process of disillusion? How comes it that the pleasure, welcomed so freely and gladly in our infancy, too often sinks, as our faculties enlarge, and our eyes grow clearer, into an odious and insipid task ? It arises in the first place, no doubt, from the causes already mentioned ; but it is also fostered, I cannot but think, by a certain narrowness and infelicity of method that one too often finds employed even by those who have the wit to see that poetry should be gently offered, not violently thrust upon the young.

Let me quote a passage from Mr. Matthew Arnold's intro. duction to those admirable selections from English poetry lately published under the supervision of Mr. Humphry Ward. He is treating of the true study of poetry, and the real nature of the benefit to be got from it-a clearer sense and deeper enjoy. ment of what is truly excellent, without which, for a definite purpose all critical and historical study of poets and their poetry is mere ‘literary dilettantism.' Then he says :-It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him; and if we lived as long as Methuselah, and had all of us heads of perfect clearness, and wills of perfect steadfastness, this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. But the case here is much the same as with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork, the better we shall be able, it may be said, to enjoy the authors. True, if time were not so short, and schoolboys' wits 80 soon tired, and their powers of attention exhausted; only as it is, the elaborate philological preparation goes on, but the authors are little known and less enjoyed.'

The case here—with English poetry-is, I would say, much the same as with these Greek and Latin studies. Of them it is not in my commission to speak. We can all see of course how excellent a thing it would be for every boy to find himself capable of enjoying, as well as of construing, his Homer and Thucydides, his Virgil and his Cicero. But it is not so easy to

see how, in the existing order of things, this most desirable consummation is to be achieved. So long as the standards of a classical education are what they now are, it will be impossible for a boy, even of the quickest parts, to satisfy them without a philological preparation of more or less elaborateness. And with this preparation it is, perhaps, no less impossible, while the mental constitution of boyhood is such as it has hitherto been, that any real enjoyment should exist. However, some boys do manage to come through the ordeal unscathed ; and with so much, or so little, we must contrive to comfort ourselves; so many of us, at least, as still believe that from the great writers of antiquity mankind may win as helpful and sustaining knowledge as from the study of the binomial theorem or the properties of acids, far indeed as I would be from seeming to sneer at those most salutary sources of wisdom. And for the others—they too may console themselves with the thought that even now, perhaps, the day is at hand for which, from the mountain-peaks of their new Atlantis, their eyes are straining with so hungry joy—the day when the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome,' shall be to our schoolboys no more than

the secret hid

Under Egypt's pyramid. But with English poetry the case is different. In the course of English education, poetry is, as the French schoolmasters say, not an obligatory but a facultative matter. In the case of a boy to be specially prepared for a soldier's life some course of poetic reading-I know not clearly what or why-is, I believe, prescribed. But as a general rule, one may, I think, take it that when a boy has left the ballad-days of nurse or mother behind him, and passed through his preliminary training into the little world of the public school, unless it be his lot to figure in those dreary and rather fruitless ceremonies known as 'Speech-days,' unless it be for punishment, he need never, save of his own free-will, take a volume of English poetry into his hand from the first day of his school-time to the last. Yet we may also, I think, take it, that it rarely happens but at some period of that time the advantages of such reading are sought to be impressed on him either at home or abroad.

And since one can hardly expect a boy, however eager his desire, to devote many hours of his playtime to a search through the vast storehouse of English poetry ; nor indeed would such a form of industry be in all ways desirable, even though he should be gifted with a taste and discrimination beyond his years, it follows that the best way to induce him to prove for himself how real and various are the pleasures poetry is capable of providing, must be to place within his reach such examples as may assure him of this fact, and at the same time fit him by wholesome and gradual degrees to study and select for himself-may lead him, in short, to the true end of the study of poetrythe clearer sense and deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent.

To this good purpose much admirable work has within recent years been done. The days of Elegant Extracts, those grim and barren days which many of us can still remember, have passed away. The gentle yet certain method of allurement to the paths of learning and virtue,' which the compiler of those ponderous tomes so justly claimed for poetry, no longer finds expression in dreary tracts of lumbering blank verse from Young's Night Thoughts and Blair's Grave; in odes on the Recovery of a Lady of Quality from the Small-pox ; in Mrs. Smith's sonnets to Night, or Miss Williams' sonnets to the Moon. The appearance of Mr. Palgrave's so fitly named Golden Treasury inaugurated a new and happier era. And

this has been followed by other volumes, less complete and lofty in their aim, but each after its kind enlarging and stimulating in its influence. Mr. Palgrave's own Book for Children, for example, Mr. Coventry Patmore's Children's Garland, the Archbishop of Dublin's Household Book of English Poetry, and the like. With so much that is excellent to choose from it may at first sight appear idle to suppose there can be room for yet another work of the same class, presumptuous in me to appear to set myself in competition with such distinguished men,

Older in practice, abler than myself

To make conditions. But I would hope it is not so. · Admirable as in their various degrees the works I have mentioned are, they yet none of them seem to me exactly to hit the mark at which I would aim. The Golden Treasury one may set aside ; that stands alone and unrivalled of its kind, a kind altogether of another and a higher class. But of the others, they none of them, I say, seem to me just to hit the mean of boyhood, that time so difficult to understand, so difficult to define, when the boy has thrown aside the frock of childhood, nor yet assumed the toga of the man. In these books there is much admirably adapted to the fancies of that time, but mingled with it, and thereby in a measure obstructing it, there is much, and perhaps necessarily much, that might, I think, repel that fancy, that might blind it to the good that is also there. Some of them, as their names imply, are mainly designed for readers of a tenderer, some, again, for readers of a riper growth. Some, therefore, by their baldness (if I may be suffered toʻuse in no discourteous sense a word that might be so construed) might perhaps offend, as presuming still too much of childishness in the reader ; others, by their too great seriousness or abstruseness might

« PreviousContinue »