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I CAME the other day upon a volume of poetry, the gift, as the inscription ran, of an Eton tutor to a pupil' who was fond of poetry, and was expected to gain some wisdom from this, the best kind of reading. There are not many things one would sooner hear a boy, in whom one was interested, praised for than this, a love of poetry; though one would wish also, of course, that he should find from his reading so much at least of wisdom, as, with honest Dogberry, to 'give God thanks and make no boast of it.' But as I wondered, for I had known something of the boy, whether the promise thus foreshadowed had been or was ever to be realised, I began to ask myself why it was that this fondness for poetry should be so rare a quality in boyhood as to deserve this so particular record. Let me here be permitted to waive the possibility-the probability, if my reader pleases—that in this quality the tutor found the only occasion for the meed of praise which his good nature prompted him to bestow on a departing pupil. I could not, then, but ask myself whence it comes that to so many boys, not otherwise unintelligent nor averse to books, the reading of English poetry is regarded rather as a task than a pleasure; a task, less irksome, to be sure, from the more familiar form of the language than their more orthodox studies of the Greek and Latin writers, but, none the less surely, a task. I suppose this is so; at least one continually hears it said, and what one continually hears said must count, of course, for something ; not for so much, perhaps, as many of us are apt to think, but no doubt for something.
But are we then to lay the blame for this wholly on the emptiness or indolence of boyish minds ? Might we not refer it a little also to the form in which poetry is too commonly offered or prescribed to them? Take, for example, the custom, familiar doubtless to so many of us, which insists that some breach of school discipline, not grave enough for the last penalty, shall be repaired by transcribing long passages from Paradise Lost. Is this, I would ask-would ask indeed
With ’bated breath, and whisp’ring humbleness, ,
for far be it from me to dash violently against the seat of order -is this the way to endear the name of Milton to boys, or induce them to search for pleasure those pages which have cost them, however justly, so many hours of playtime? Offences will come, no doubt, and must be punished, certainly ; but could not some other means of punislıment be devised, not less effectual and, if I may be permitted the expression, more legitimate ; means recognised and allowed by the offenders themselves to exist as instruments to plague them'? The Furies of the old world were no fair and loveable creatures, but hateful and odious to look upon, as well as strong and terrible to punish. The associations of boyhood last long, nor is it everyone who has the candour to say with Byron,
Then farewell Horace whom I hated so,
Again, the compulsory learning of a speech from Shakespeare, a passage from Childe Harold or Marmion, is hardly, I would submit, the way with most boys to open their young minds to the true beauty and usefulness of poetry, for the simple reason, unworthy as that reason may be, that it is compulsory. It may be said, of course, that with the majority of boys compulsion is the only method of directing them to such studies. If this is so-and I cannot think that it is, to the extent that is commonly supposed—then were it not perhaps as well to let these studies be? to let compulsion be exercised only on such subjects as we are all agreed to consider, or suffer, for the present, to be considered, necessary and indispensable civilisers of the young idea ? As an exercise of memory such a course of study is no doubt very wholesome ; and certainly it is better that the memory should be exercised by beautiful and noble means than by common ones or worthless. But as certainly, save in very exceptional cases, the poetry suffers ; the poetic patrimony of the human race, to borrow M. Scherer's fine phrase, is degraded to a mere schoolboy's tale,' not the wonder, but the tediousness, the drudgery of an hour. There are exceptions, of course. Some boys, no doubt, there are who have, as one may say, been cradled into poetry by wrong,' have survived the grim ordeal, and learnt at last to love the hand that has chastised them; others again who have within them some dim and fleeting glimpses of the vision, if haply they are never fated to lay hands upon the faculty divine. But, broadly speaking, we shall not perhaps go far astray if we assume that all poetry, English no less than Greek and Latin, is thrown by the schoolboy pell-mell into one odious heap and labelled lessons. And indeed how should it be otherwise ? Lessons they are, and lessons to him they have been since that fatal day when the sun was shining without, the breeze blowing, the birds singing, and within a poor puzzled child was vainly striving to commit to memory, “To be or not to be,' or 'These are thy glorious works, Parent of Good !' And still as the years go on it is the same. The moment English poetry begins to be viewed with suspicion, as a possible instrument of torture in any shape, then will Shakespeare and Milton, Scott and Wordsworth, take their place in the boy's heart side by side with Homer and Horace, with a proposition of Euclid and an equation in Algebra. There must, surely there must be something rotten in the state' which can degrade the great spirits who have done so much to make us wiser and happier into so many sources of lamentation and mourning and woe!
And yet, natural as one cannot but regard this feeling in the conditions which foster it, it is not in itself a growth of nature. For in all very young minds, or certainly in most, we shall find, I think, the germ of a love of poetry. Little children, for example, when petitioning their mother or nurse to read something,' are, as a rule, best pleased when that 'something' takes the form of rhyme. What, says Pope, after Horace,
What will a child learn sooner than a song ? Most of us, I suppose, can remember with what delight we first listened to such flowing buoyant verse as Lochinvar or The Battle of the Baltic. Such poetry, set to the tune of a familiar voice, had in those days all the charm of music, the charm of a natural sedative. The easy cadence of the rhythm, the beat of the rhyme, pleased and soothed our ears, and through that easy channel stole with soft and gradual step upon our young unconscious minds. A distinguished French. man, Count Joseph de Maistre, writing from Russia to his daughter at home, illustrates this feeling very happily. He wishes her to press upon her brother the usefulness of the