Poetry, Imagination and Education
Amy Lowell (circa 1900-1925) at Sevenels, photographed by Bachrach.
by Amy Lowell
Perhaps there never was a time when education received so much general attention as it does today. The world is deluged with books, pamphlets, and reviews on the subject, new systems are continually jostling the old out of place, new methods are constantly being applied, the very end and aim of education itself seems to change from time to time.
That the object of education should be to fit the child for life is such a trite and well-worn saying, that people smile at its commonplaceness even while they agree with its obvious common sense. But the many ways of fitting the child, and the very various and diverse lives that have to be fitted for, are so perplexing that it is small wonder that curriculums multiply and still, multiply their subjects in order to keep up with the complexity of modern existence.
More and more of late years has the old education by means of the humanities been broken down, and instead of it we see substituted a sort of vocational training. Children are now taught to do, where, in the older systems, they were taught to think. It is as if we had learnt to distrust what we cannot see, to demand an immediate tangible result for the outlay of preparation. This is perhaps largely due to our national temper. We are always in a hurry. But does this constant haste produce the results desired? ‘Evolution, not revolution, is the order of development,’ says Mr. Hughes, in his book on comparative education, and education is a process requiring much time. Nature cannot be hurried; there is no such thing as cramming possible to her methods. A congested curriculum results in the proper assimilation of no one subject, and what can we think of a primary school, boasting only one teacher, in which children were taught seventeen subjects, with fifteen minutes given to each subject, as was the case some years ago in a school which came under my observation.
No educator is so insensate as to approve of such a method, and it is just in the hope of simplifying education that this idea of dropping the humanities has been evolved. But, in considering the means as the end, to what are we led? What is the result of an over-insistence upon fact, and an under-emphasis upon the development of faculties? It is a result little realized for the most part; one which may fit in with the views of the more extreme socialists, perhaps, but hardly in accord with those rights of the individual which have always been America’s brightest ideal. For it is precisely the humanities which develop individuality. A knowledge of facts does not make us men; it is the active use of brains which does that. Whatever tends to make the brain supple and self-reliant is a direct help to personality.
Perhaps the two qualities which more than any others go to the making of a strong personality are character and imagination. Character means courage, and there is a great difference between the collective courage of a mass of people all thinking the same way and the courage of a man who cares not at all for public opinion but follows his own chosen path unswervingly. Our national ideal as to the moral attitude is high; what the people understand, and what they all agree about, that they will do; but it is not so easy to find men who are willing to think and act at variance with the opinions of their neighbours. We see this trait constantly in those people who live beyond their Incomes; who must have this and that because their friends have it. This weakness gnaws at the foundation of our national existence like an insidious disease. For, with all our talk of individualism, we are among the least individual of nations. The era of machine-made articles has swept over the land, and nowhere is its product more deteriorating than in the machine-made types which our schools turn out.
I do not wish to be misunderstood; I do not mean that these types are poor or bad types — on the contrary, machines work with a wonderful precision -but these types are ran in a mould, or rather several moulds. The result is a high state of mediocrity. But there is a danger here which we do not quite foresee. Machines are controlled by the men who make and work them. Upon the few with the brains to create and guide, the destinies of the others therefore depend. There has never been such a machine-made people as the Germans; and we can see clearly to-day, as we could not some years ago, what happens to such a people when the guiding powers are unscrupulous and wrought upon by an overweening ambition.
A democracy can only succeed through an enlightened proletariat. If character and imagination are the essentials to a strong personality, one capable of directing itself and not at the mercy of demagogues and fanatics, then we should leave no stones unturned to gain this end. I think I make no unwise statement when I say that it is only in those minds possessing but a modicum of imagination that the value of the humanities as an educational factor is denied.
It is clearly not my purpose, in this paper, to speak of character building, neither have I space to go into all the ways in which the faculty of imagination might be stimulated, but there is one, and I think the most important one, the value of which is only imperfectly understood. I mean literature, and more especially poetry, and more especially still, contemporary poetry.
We all agree that the aim of education is to fit the child for life. But the differences of opinion as to how that fitting is to be done are almost as many as there are men to hold them. Again, we all agree as to the necessity of building up a strong character, but here again we are at variance as to how this is to be done. Still, upon these points the world is in accord; the point on which it differs radically is precisely that of imagination. Fully all of our pedagogues cannot see that imagination is the root of all civilization. Like love, it may very fairly be said to ‘make the world go round.’ But as it works out of sight, it is given very little credit for what it performs.
Pedagogy is being treated as a science, which would seem a start in the right direction, were it not that true science must be exact, mathematically so, and capable of being proved backwards. The slightest mistake in facts or reasoning throws the result hopelessly out. Is it possible that, with all our scientific pretensions, we have overlooked a primary link in a logical chain? Is it possible that that link is the importance of the subconscious? Can it be said that the very lack of imagination in the pedagogic mind is responsible for this fatal error? But let us leap to no conclusions. Even if we think we see an end, let us not postulate upon it until we have reached it, step by step, and have proved its existence.
Character is no new thing in the world, neither is imagination, nor, indeed, education. Our ancestors were as much interested in these things as we are. Like us, they talked of character and education, and, like us, they did not talk of imagination. And yet I think it can easily be proved that their methods were more favourable to its development than our own.
Let us forget theories for the moment and take our stand upon an unassailable truism, namely that the object of education is to educate. Now, once more, forgetting the dusty cobwebs of twentieth-century discussion, let us consider the old dictionary definition of ‘to educate,’ which is ‘to bring forth and form the natural faculties.’ To bring forth and form the natural faculties, to bring out the best that the child has in him so that no talent nor power shall be left latent, and then so to train and cultivate these talents and powers that the child shall obtain perfect control over them, and make them of the fullest use.
Nothing is said here about fitting the child for life. Our ancestors considered that so obvious a fact as to need no stating, and this very reticence proves an imaginative attitude which we seem to have lost to-day.
It might be said quite truthfully that no one was ever taught anything; that one learned, but was not taught; that what the mind was ready for the mind received, that what the mind was not ready for fell away and was forgotten. Therefore the true end of education as such must be to train the mind. Another truism, you will say. Granted but how is this same training to be done?
The last generation believed in the old classical education; they had forgotten why in many cases, but the prejudice remained that Greek and Latin were the best training. The reason was a perfectly valid one: Greek and Latin were hard to learn and needed brain application, also they could not be learnt by rote; the boy had to use his mind and his imagination, and, being accustomed to using his mind and imagination in his studies, he brought them to bear on other things as well.
We have not dropped the old classical education entirely, but we have added many other things to it, and in so doing have diminished the amount of time and thought given to it, and consequently the amount of benefit to be derived from it. Of the things which we have added, some are really good, others appear so, but the total effect does not seem so very far in advance of the old method after all.
Our children are turned out with a smattering of many subjects, but can we say that they are any better educated than the men and women that preceded them? Are they better equipped for life? do they find the problems that they have to solve easier of solution? For there is one great fault in our educational systems to-day; they teach, but they do not train; and the one faculty without which no other can come to fruition is never really trained at all, for we cannot deny that imagination is forced to strive against adverse circumstances both at home and in school.
Years ago, before the education of little children was considered so important a subject as it is now, lessons were given in certain well-defined subjects; reading, writing, and ciphering (as it was then called) formed the staple of the school course, supplemented by geography, Latin, and, in the case of little girls, sewing.
Dreary enough these lessons must have been, for a-b, ab, many times repeated fails to germinate any interesting train of thought, and pot-hooks and hangers scrawled in interminable succession with a squeaky slate pencil on a slate leave the imagination cold.
But even if the lessons themselves were not in the least alluring, this same imagination wag stimulated by the best of all methods, by the good old-fashioned fairy story; either told by some old nurse, or read out of enchanting books with innumerable quaint woodcuts, so that forever after the names of certain tales were inseparably bound up with the woodcuts in question, and to name the one was to see the other. There was no moral hidden away in these stories, except the wholesome one that the good always triumphed in the end; their aim was to amuse, to charm, and even sometimes to terrify, to beguile the child along the paths of unreality into the great and beautiful world of romance. Romance is a grasp of the ideal, an endeavour to express by symbols the great truths of life. Wedded to rhythm, it becomes poetry. It is the striving of the soul after the unattainable. And into this rich world the little child entered through the portals of the fairy story, as thousands of years before the nations in their childhood had entered; as the Nibelungen Lied, the Norse sagas, and the myths of every land are here to testify.
But today the fairy story is discountenanced, or if the child is beguiled into reading a book purporting to be about a certain Jack Frost, a sprightly elf, he speedily discovers that he is really reading a treatise on the action of frost. One child’s magazine absolutely forbids fairy stories, and in all, information, whether given outright or cleverly disguised as in the Jack Frost story, preponderates. This is a work-a-day world and solid information is at a premium. So we have ‘Life in a Lighthouse,’ ‘ Careers of Danger and Daring,’ ‘How a Big City is Lighted,’ ‘The Children’s Room at the Smithsonian” ‘English Public Schools,’ ‘The Fairy Land of Science,’ and many more articles and books, very informing, doubtless, but doubtless also very uninspiring. These deal with the facts of life, and facts are most important things, but fancies are important too, and the fancies are not much cultivated today.
It is doubtful if fancy can be cultivated directly, it is too subtle and elusive, it must grow of itself, but conditions can be made conducive or the reverse. To be conducted through the realms of poetry and romance by a grown-up person, as one of a class of children all with differing needs and perceptions, at a given rate of speed, is not conducive to such growth.
To gain the greatest amount out of a book, one must read it as inclination leads; some parts are to be hurried over quickly, others read slowly and many times over; the mind will take what it needs, and dwell upon it, and make it its own.
Its connotations are really what make a book of use in stimulating the imagination. As a musical note is richer the more overtones it has, so a book is richer the more it ramifies into trains of thought. But there must be time and space for the thought to develop; the reader must not be interrupted by impertinent comments and alien suggestions.
We all hate the poetry we learnt in school. Why? Is it because it was in school that we learnt it, or is it because the conditions were such that we never really learnt it at all, the fine inner sense of it and its beauty of expression were both hidden from us?
Children never know why a thing is beautiful, but if their taste has not been perverted they often feel that it is so. This feeling can be cultivated and improved until the time comes when the child can know why.
There are two ways in which books stimulate the imagination; one is by beauty of thought, the other is by beauty of form. It takes a much wiser head than a little child’s to say why certain combinations of words are beautiful, but even a little child can feel their charm. A story well told and a story ill told are as the poles asunder. At first one might deny that a child could have artistic perception enough to notice the difference. But that would be merely to confuse with technical jargon. The primary test of good writing is really very simple. It consists in the effect produced. The well-told story will make the child thrill with delight, its scenes will be real to him, its people his own dear friends; the ill-told story will not keep his attention, and nothing in it will interest him much.
For the object of writing is to produce a given effect. The writing will be good according as the effect is produced or not. Simple actions are easily described; the old spelling-book did not need to be possessed of much literary ability when it told us that ‘The boy is on the box,’ but it was good writing as far as it went. From that to Shakespeare’s poetry and Pater’s prose is merely a question of degree. The effect is infinitely more subtle, more penetrating, but the words are equally adequate, and convey the meaning in the same succinct manner.
At first the child merely knows that this story or that story is interesting, that certain other stories are not interesting, he does not attempt to analyse why. Later he will make his first true criticism; he will say, ‘It does not seem real,’ or ‘Nobody would do so.’ He has detected bad writing; his imagination refuses to give credence to what its instinct declares not to be true. Gradually these criticisms of matter are added to by criticisms of form, and we have ‘Nobody would talk like that.’
What makes the child think that nobody would do thus and so, or that nobody would talk in such and such a way? Partly his knowledge of life as he has lived it, of course. Though he has lived a very small life and his experiences have necessarily been few, yet through the life of his imagination he has been able to live much more, he has gained a conception of life far beyond anything that he has ever experienced.
If one can imagine oneself a child of twelve years old denuded of any knowledge or idea of anything except what he can have known or seen in his daily life, one will at once see how much more meagre his conceptions would be than is actually the case. Therefore what makes the child think that this or that thing that he is reading about is false is the knowledge that he has gained through his imagination.
The power of judgment is like water running up hill; water cannot rise higher than its own level, and judgment cannot go beyond the experience which informs it. To be sure that the judgment is sound, the school in which the experience is gained must be true to life. Only the best in literature and art is this, and it is with the best in literature and art that our children must be familiar.
There is a popular impression that so-called ‘children’s books’ are the proper reading for children, and certainly very few children’s books can be classed as belonging to the best in literature. But also the really great books are few in any literature, and there is much inspiration and profit to be got from books below this highest grade. Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare are like mountain-peaks, the horizon is wider on the heights, the air purer and more invigorating; but literature has its byways, and shady lanes, and quiet sequestered places as well, and because we enjoy mountain-climbing does not prove that there is no profit to be got in rambling through these simpler paths.
Many books purporting to be written for children are very good, have become classics, indeed; ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Through the Looking-Glass,’ George Macdonald’s ‘Princess and the Goblin,’ and Thackeray’s ‘The Rose and the Ring’ come under this class. But the mass of children’s books are poor, with a poverty only varying in degree. This brings us to the question of whether children’s reading should be confined to juvenile books.
The old argument that children do not understand grown-up books is really a groundless one. Some books written for older people are more enjoyed in childhood than they ever will be later. Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ is a good example of this, and in the case of many people it would be true also of the novels of both Scott and Dickens.
Even in cases where the full meaning is only faintly grasped, there is often much pleasure to be gained and consequently much profit. This is especially true of poetry. Children are often captivated by poetry which they cannot possibly understand, and the charm lies partly in the images it conjures up and partly in the music of the syllables; the main purport of the poem remaining forever concealed. But who shall say that this enjoyment in something so balanced and beautiful as a great poem has not a stimulating effect upon the imagination?
James Russell Lowell has told us that when he was a very little boy his sister used to read him to sleep with Spenser’s ‘Faery Queen! It was the first poem he ever heard and he was very fond of it, but it was not until many years later that he discovered that it had a double meaning. How much his early intimacy with Spenser and other authors of the same class had in determining the extreme delicacy of his literary perception it is impossible to tell, but it is certain that it was not without effect.
It is always difficult to decide how much early environment has to do with later development, but all education is based on the belief that it has much to do with it, and one could cite instance after instance to prove this theory.
There is a remarkable example in the case of Charlotte Bronte. Her style has great vigour and beauty. It is exquisitely proportioned, quick, sure, and subtle. This seems extraordinary in the daughter of a poor country clergyman, whose nominal education was got at an inferior boarding school, whose life was passed in a little country town, only varied by a few attempts at teaching as a governess in the country houses of richer families, and by one year and ten months in a pension in Brussels. But when we consider what her reading was as a child it does not seem so strange. In Mrs. Ward’s introduction to ‘Jane Eyre,’ in the Haworth edition of Miss Bronte’s novels, is the following passage: ‘There were no children’s books at Haworth Parsonage. The children were nourished upon the food of their elders: the Bible, Shakespeare, Addison, Johnson, Sheridan, Cowper for the past; Scott, Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, “Blackwood’s Magazine,” “Fraser’s Magazine,” and Leigh Hunt for the moderns; on a constant supply of newspapers, Whig and Tory Charlotte once said to a friend that she had taken an interest in politics since she was five years old; on current biographies, such as Lockhart’s “Life of Burns,” Moore’s “Lives of Byron and Sheridan, Southey’s “Nelson,” Wolfe’s “Remains”; and on miscellaneous readings of old Methodist magazines, Mrs. Rowe’s “Letters from the Dead to the Living,” the “British Essayists,” collected from the “Rambler,” the “Mirror,” and elsewhere, and stories from the “Lady’s Magazine.” They breathed, therefore, as far as books were concerned, a bracing and stimulating air from the beginning. Nothing was softened or adapted for them.’
It will be objected that Charlotte Bronte was a genius, that her reading alone would never have enabled her to write as she did. True; but even genius needs to be trained!
But what has style to do with imagination, some people will ask? Style has everything to do with imagination. A really good style cannot exist without imagination. As the test of good writing is in the effect produced, and the object of all writing is to produce a given effect, so that effect must be first clear to the mind of the writer, and this requires imagination.
The writer conceives of his idea through the power of imagination, and through the power of imagination the idea takes form again in the reader’s mind; the vehicle of transmission is the writer’s style. The more fully developed the imagination of both writer and reader, and the more adequate the style, the more perfectly transmitted is the idea.
Imagination is behind all the great things that have been said and done in the world. All the great discoveries, all the great reforms, they have all been imagined first. Not a poem has been written, not a sermon preached, not an invention perfected, but has been first conceived.
And yet imagination must take a second place to-day and give room for the learning of so-called useful things!
In a list of the books for boys and girls in a large public library near Boston, the subjects are divided under headings. ‘Poetry’ takes up only a part of one page out of a catalogue of twenty-nine pages; ‘Fairy Tales and Folk-Lore’ have another page, while one page and a half is devoted to ‘Inventions and Occupations’ and one page to ‘Outdoor Life.’ Of course some of the books that come under other headings, such as ‘Famous Old Stories’ and ‘Other Countries,’ axe really good literature, but appallingly few. Leaving out those sections devoted to ‘Younger Readers’ and ‘For Older Boys and Girls,’ that is, taking the middle section which is especially adapted for children of the grammar-school age, I find, out of a total of four hundred and seven books, the only ones which could be considered good literature are Aldrich’s ‘Story of a Bad Boy,’ Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ Hughes’s ‘Tom Brown’s -‘School Days,’ Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island,’ Mark Twain’s ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’ Mary Mapes Dodge’s ‘Hans Brinker,’ Kipling’s’ Jungle Book,’ Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ ‘Don Quixote,’ Hawthorne’s ‘Wonder Book,” Tanglewood Tales,’ and ‘Grandfather’s Chair,’ ‘ The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey,’ Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Malory’s ‘King Arthur,’ Shakespeare (the Ben Greet Edition), ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ and Marryat’s ‘Masterman Ready’ and ‘Children of the New Forest.’
The poetry list is unaccountably inadequate, consisting almost entirely of individual poems. The only volumes listed are: Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline’ and ‘Hiawatha,’ Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome,’ Scott’s ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Marmion,’ Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses,’ Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’ and Whittier’s ‘Snow-Bound.’
There are also collections of poetry, ten of them, of which the best are Henley’s ‘Lyra Heroica,’ Lang’s ‘Blue Poetry Book,’ and Lucas’s ‘Book of Verses for Children.’
The fairy-tale section is even worse, and how dreary the inclusion of the word ‘Folklore’ in a catalogue intended for the use of children. Certainly, the erudite person who made this selection never reads fairy stories for amusement. The pseudo-scientific flavour of ‘folklore’ has intrigued him sadly, else why include Kingsley’s ‘Greek Heroes’ under ‘Fairy Tales,’ why entirely exclude Thackeray’s ‘The Rose and the Ring’ and George Macdonald’s ‘Princess and the Goblin’ and ‘Princess and Curdie,’ these last both better books than ‘At the Back of the North Wind,’ by the same author, which has been allowed? What is the matter with ‘Through the Looking-Glass, since ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is here, and here without the asterisk which tells the child that the library contains other books by the same author. Think of growing up conversant with only half of Alice! Where are the delightful fairy tales of Mrs. Molesworth? where are those of Perrault, of Lord Brabourne? and why are Andrew Lang’s long series of coloured fairy books represented by only one, and again with no asterisk? Poor little children, at the mercy of such elders as this compiling gentleman!
The list for older boys and girls is somewhat better, and here we find ‘Through the Looking-Glass,’ though why it should be considered too advanced for younger readers, I cannot imagine. But the fact that this older section starts out with Miss Addams’s ‘Twenty Years at Hull House,’ is eloquent of the attitude of the present day. Alas for imagination, when the inclusion of such a volume in such a list is possible!
It is true, a child can have any book that the library contains by asking for it. But the children who frequent the library most belong to the poorer classes, and their only chance of becoming familiar with books out of school is at the Public Library. At home, they are not surrounded with a large culture which makes the names of the great writers household words to them. How do they know what to ask for? A catalogue tells them nothing, and the only shelves they have access to until they are eighteen are those containing the books in the list I have been quoting. And this is in a town famous for its educational system!
Probably the catalogues intended for the use of children in our large libraries would show conditions to be less unfortunate, but I think the one I have quoted is at least typical.
There is no education like self-education, and no stimulus to the imagination so good as that which it gives itself when allowed to roam through the pent-up stores of the world’s imaginings at will.
There is a class of people known to all librarians as ‘browsers.’ They wander from shelf to shelf, now reading here, now there. Sometimes dipping into ten books in the hour, sometimes absorbed in one for the whole day. If we look back to our childhood we shall see how large a part ‘browsing’ had in our education. One book suggested another, and as we finished one we knew the next that was waiting to be begun. They stretched on and on in a delightful and never-ending vista. The joy of those hours when we sat cross-legged’ on the floor, or perched on the top of a ladder, a new world hidden behind the covers of every book within reach, and perfect liberty to open the covers and enter at will, can never be forgotten.
We talk about ‘creating a demand for books’ among the children of the masses, and about ‘ giving them the reading habit,’ and the best way to do this is to have a well-stocked reading-room of good books, books for grown-up people as well as for children, and let the children have free access to the shelves. They will be found reading strange things often, strange from the point of view of the grown-up person, that is. But in most cases their instincts will be good guides, and they will read what is best for them.
There is too much teaching today.
We love and admire certain things rather inspite of what people say than because of it. We like to compare notes with some one who enjoys the same things that we do, but the real enjoyment was there before. Beauty cannot be proved as a mathematical problem can. If beauty is its own excuse for being, it is also its own teacher for perceiving. Contact with beautiful things creates a taste for the beautiful, if there is any taste to be created.
Not every one has a great deal of imagination, but every one has a certain amount capable of cultivation to a greater or lesser degree, and the chief stimulaters of imagination are the arts poetry, music, painting; the humanities as opposed to the materialities.
The boy who said that his Shakespeare class was only questioned on the notes, and so, as the boys were pressed for time, they only read the notes, was giving the most eloquent testimony as to the absolute unfitness of his teacher. Doubtless the teacher would have been horrified had he known of this state of things, but his own imagination must have been very much in need of cultivating for him not to have noticed it.
For the last two years of my school course, I attended lectures on Shakespeare by an eminent Harvard professor. I remember those lectures very well; they made an indelible impression. We learnt everything about the plays we studied except the things that mattered. Not a historical allusion, not an antiquarian tit-bit, escaped us. The plays were made mines of valueless information. Out of them we delved all sorts of stray and curious facts which were as unimportant to Shakespeare as to us. Not once in those two years were we bidden to notice the poetry, not once was there a single aesthetic analysis. The plays might have been written in the baldest prose for all the eminent professor seemed to care. They became merely ‘quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore,’ and if what we learnt at those lectures were a criterion, might indeed have been promptly and satisfactorily forgotten. So much time and energy had been wasted in finding out these things, and when found out their proper goal was the bonfire.
In my own case, however, I was saved, saved from the clutches of ignorant and unimaginative Academia, by coming across a volume in my father’s library which opened a door that might otherwise have always remained shut. Browsing about one day, I found Leigh Hunt’s ‘Imagination and Fancy! I did not read it, I devoured it. I read it over and over, and then I turned to the works of the poets referred to, and tried to read them by the light of the new aesthetic perception I had learnt from Hunt.
So engulfed in this new pursuit was I, that I used to inveigle my schoolmates up to my room and read them long stretches of Shelley, and Keats, and Coleridge, and Beaumont and Fletcher. Guided by Hunt, I found a new Shakespeare, one of whom I had never dreamed, and so the plays were saved for me, and nothing was left of the professor’s lectures except an immense bitterness for the lost time.
I have often thought that in this book of Leigh Hunt’s we have an excellent text-book for what should be the proper teaching of literature, and especially of poetry. Poetry is an art, and to emphasize anything else in teaching it is to deny its true function.
The study of what is now called the ‘science of aesthetics’ is a difficult one. Such a book as Mr. Willard Huntington Wright’s ‘The Creative Will’ is immensely stimulating to the artist, but would only be confusing to school-children, even to those of high-school grade. But much of this volume, much of the many volumes on the subject, could be expressed in simpler terms. Beginning by stimulating the child’s artistic perceptions in the very primitive manner of the. child’s own reactions, an example of which I mentioned earlier in this article, the teacher can easily inculcate certain rules and touchstones, enlarging upon them from year to year, and in this manner lay a firm foundation for literary understanding; for it is only through understanding that literature, and particularly poetry, can function as a direct stimulus to imagination.
I realize perfectly that this method would put a great strain on our teachers. It is comparatively easy to learn a series of antiquarian allusions and reel them off to a class; to analyse an aesthetic scheme is a much more difficult matter. I was interested to come across this very idea in an essay of Professor Dowden’s which I read lately. But, having pointed out the difficulty, the wise professor ignored it, and proceeded to write his paper without the inclusion of a single aesthetic preoccupation. To be sure, he apologized for this in the preface, but the essay was published.
We see, therefore, that to permit poetry to exert its imaginative training upon youth, a complete change must take place in the method by which it is taught. We must lay aside the academic tricks of the trade. Our teachers and expounders must first put themselves to school; they must desert the easy path of historical anecdote, for the difficult one of aesthetic comprehension. They must teach their pupils what poetry is, and why it is good, greater, greatest. They must be enthusiastic pioneers for themselves and for their classes. They must forget the mass of criticism (most of it mischievous) grown up about the classics, and rediscover them with delight. An excellent way to begin would be to conduct a course upon living poets.
The most significant thing in America today is the popular demand for poetry. It has grown by leaps and bounds. I read recently in a newspaper that the demand for poetry at the training camps was extraordinary. In the ‘Book News Monthly’ for July, is an interesting chart showing the increase in the publication of books on poetry and the drama since 1902. In that year, 220 such books were published in the United States; in 1916, there were 633. More volumes of this kind were issued than of any other kind except fiction, and fiction only exceeded by seventy-three volumes. The publication of fiction has markedly diminished of late years. Why? Simply because poetry is really much more vital than fiction. Once poetry had thrown off its shackles, once it had begun to speak freely, sturdily, with the voice of its own age, it found a ready audience. Even Academia is listening, puzzled a little perhaps, but still becoming daily more attentive. I have had various teachers tell me sadly that the difficulty in speaking of it to a class is that they do not know the good modem poetry from the bad, it is all so ‘different.’ What is the matter? What has happened to the critical faculty within the walls of learning? I am sorry to have to say it, but the answer is ‘pure laziness.’ It is so much easier to run through a couple of volumes of somebody else’s conclusions and be guided by them, than to form one’s own by first-hand contact with works of art. And then, too, it opens one to an awful danger. One may be wrong! Still, the world is growing, and humanists, no more than scientists, can afford to live in an intellectual back-water.
The humanities are not yet a dead letter; one cannot push out of place something which is daily proving itself an emotional force of profound importance. Granted that, as taught, they might as well go, so might science if it taught that the world was flat. Taught as they should be, imagination might once again assert its saving power over a materialistic world.
The printed outline of work for the English Department of one of our high schools begins with the following sentence: ‘The primary aim during the first year is to read works of standard authors which, while quickening the imagination and presenting a strong element of interest, shall reinforce the History and the Latin.’ Imagination in parenthesis, that is the attitude of education to-day! And until it is once more considered as worthy of being the end of a sentence and the end of an endeavour, education will not be the harmonious and nicely balanced thing that perfect development presupposes.
Essay first published in North American Review, vol 206, 1917.