Page images
PDF

weary. Sometimes, too, one meets in them-let me be under. stood to speak in all reverence-- pieces of perhaps too purely devotional a turn to attract the class of tastes I aim at. Let me again quote Mr. Arnold's words - Schoolboys' wits-nor, perhaps, need the charge be confined to schoolboys-are so soon tired, and their powers of attention exhausted. In preparing a book that one would wish to see young hands take up of their own will, that one would wish to be enjoyed as well as read, one cannot, I think, do better than remember these words. True, as Mr. Longfellow has written, “A boy's will is the wind's will,' and he would be a bold man indeed who should think to bend that will and keep it to his own in such a matter as this; to assume the voice of Sir Oracle, and fix once for all what poetry will attract, and what repel a boy's taste. Yet certain broad principles one may, I hope, lay down without presumption, and to strive to clear the ground of such work as may seem opposed to these principles may perhaps be permitted me.

Poetry must first please to teach. “Sin,' once said Sydney Smith of long sermons, 'cannot be taken out of a man, as Eve was out of Adam, by casting him into a deep slumber ;' nor can the love of poetry be got into a boy by wearying his head and vexing his heart. The love of poetry must indeed, no less surely than the poet himself, be born, not made; but the infant love needs careful nursing and a generous diet before it can attain the perfect growth, the clear sense and deep enjoy. ment of what is truly excellent. The Muse must first become our friend if we are to find her, as find her we so surely shall if we use her friendship right, our philosopher and guide. I do not say it is desirable that boys should look on poets only as

The idle singers of an empty day,

should have no higher ideal than

To find huge wealth in one pound one,

Vast wit in broken noses.

But he who would preach the beautiful gospel of poetry to the young must, as Mr. Arnold has said of teachers in an older school, not make war but persuade. Of the two cardinal virtues of poetry, moral profundity and natural magic,--to borrow again from the same sure and delicate critio-he will do best, I think, to build his doctrine mainly on the last. With all its truth, with all its straightforwardness and simplicity, that other phrase of Mr. Arnold's, a criticism of life, seems so strangely to have puzzled clearer heads than grow on schoolboys' shoulders, that he who preaches to them will do wisely perhaps to put it by for the time. Let him then not take as his text,

Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither ;

Ripeness is all. but rather the

Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty. or,

I saw young Harry, with his beaver on. Not,

The world is too much with as; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, but rather

I saw her singing at her work,

And o'er the sickle bending. 'Nature,' wrote Sir Philip Sidney, 'never set the Earth in so rich tapestry as diverse poets have done ; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever may make the Earth more lovely.' And again-who does not remember it ?—I never heard the old song of Percie and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet!' Those who wish to see their boys fond of poetry will do well, I think, to bear in mind these words ; to set before them not what shall burden their young imaginations with

the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world, but rather gladden them with

Joy in widest commonalty spread. Too soon, indeed, they cannot learn that in the best poetry there must always be a seriousness, not abstruseness, not austerity, not gloom, and least of all dulness; in true poetry, there lies no more of dulness, than of real mirth, of real cheerful. ness of heart, there lies in such empty laughter as tickled Spenser's damsel of 'the Idle Lake'

who did assay To laugh at shaking of the leaves light. No; the seriousness of poetry is that noble truth and seriousness in which, as the Greeks saw, lies the great value of poetry as a teacher. Didactic' poetry,' wrote Shelley, is my abhorrence ;' and in the sense in which he took the epithet, the sense in which it is generally taken, didactic poetry is indeed an unlovely and an impossible thing. The best poetry will always teach ; but it will not teach with the lumbering per. sistence of a Young or a Blair, nor, as in truth one must say, of a Wordsworth sometimes. It will not make war, let me say again, but persuade; as has been so happily said of the light and graceful wisdom of Horace, it will

Win unfelt an entrance to the heart,

and when the entrance is won, then felt indeed it will be, as the truest, the surest, the most gracious of all earthly friends and consolers, never, when once known, to be put aside or forgotten. Yes ; in the best poetry this seriousness will always be found by those who look for it, but it will be found in light things as in grave, a seriousness

Which without hardness will be sage,
And gay without frivolity.

• To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.' The poet of Paradise Lost was also the poet of L'Allegro; he could sing of

Eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men, and he could sing too of

Many a youth, and many a maid

Dancing in the chequered shade. But never will it take that form, so prevalent among the young Pelagians around us, the form of ineffectual wailings that all

Glory and loveliness have passed awayPassed away indeed! from how much of the so-called poetry of to-day have they not passed away! But they will not be brought back to us by those who sit idle in the market-place, piping little songs to each other in praise of their own beauty and worth, in scorn of the workers around them. Amid all the ignoble growths of vanity and ignorance which to-day so sadly hamper the true striving after light, how invigorating it is to come across such words as these,—'I neither, when I think of what history has been, am inclined to lament the past, to despise the present, or despair of the future ; I believe all the change and stir about us is a sign of the world's life, and that it will lead-by ways, indeed, of which we have no guess

to the bettering of all mankind.'* As one has sung, one who knew 'the mighty minds of old,' and loved, and learned of them, far more truly and deeply than our modern professors of Paganism-I mean, Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

What is true and just and honest,
What is lovely, what is pure,
All of praise that hath admonisht,
All of virtue, shall endure ;
These are themes for poets' uses,
Stirring nobler than the Muses,

Ere Pan was dead.

Some such I hope may be found in this little book, which I offer not in rivalry to abler men and worthier books, but as a humble contribution to the greatest of charities, to the making human beings wiser and happier.

Among thy mightier offerings here are mine!

That which so rarely happens even to the best of us—my performance will be found equal to my promise, I may hardly dare to hope. Many things have no doubt been omitted which a larger knowledge might have suggested ; many things included which a nicer judgment, or one more experienced in the fancies and feelings of boyhood, might have rejected. Its form-and this also has been part of my design, for, nor only with young readers, will the book which is easiest to hold in the hand be perhaps most often found there-its form, I say has necessarily restricted

* Hopes and Fears for Art, by William Morris, author of "The Life and Death of Jason,' &c.

« PreviousContinue »