Poetry For Children
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE little child cares instinctively for verse both because of the simple story it tells or the familiar picture it suggests to him and because of the rhythm. Strongly marked time, a perfectly even metre, and a story of action, are the chief characteristics of the rhymes and jingles that have charmed childhood ever since the days of "Mother Goose."
The younger the child the more likely he is to prefer verse to prose. Not old enough to gather concrete images from a story or to follow it closely, he makes a story of his own from the half-chanted words of the rhyme or jingle, and when you laugh or smile or put on a grave face over it, he does the same, but it is either in imitation of you or about the story he is making rather than the story itself.
If you doubt this, try to get him to tell you your story in in his own words, he may be able to repeat it from memory, but if he puts it into his own words it will not be just the same story. In other words, his imagination has been aroused, and the rhyme has simply supplied a starting-point or a spur. The essential value of poetry lies in this power it has, and the power lays hold of the smallest child.
You may be reading genuine poetry to a child—say of five or six years of age—and provided it has good rhythm and an easy flow and presents pictures for the imagination to apprehend, he will often enjoy it as much as if not more than the jingles which he can more easily understand. He cannot tell you why he likes it or what he gets from it, and if you insist on knowing you will probably have Wordsworth's unsatisfactory experience when he persisted in trying to find out why his child liked Kilve rather than Liswyn farm. The answer,
"At Kilve there was no weathercock,
was a child's natural evasion of the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible.
A little fellow of my acquaintance never tired, when in a reading mood, of having Longfellow's "Slave's Dream" read to him, and always called for it in preference to anything else. This lasted all one year, when the poem gradually lost its hold on him and something else took its place. He was not old enough to understand the poem, but apparently certain words called up independent images in his mind which he enjoyed.
With this love of verse as a clue, it is a pity that, as a rule, we do not know enough to follow it up and continue providing children with poetry suitable to the stage of understanding or the capacity for inspiration at which they have arrived. For the imagination must have food, and if it has not the best it will feed on inferior material.
It is largely imagination seeking nourishment which leads ignorant people to feed upon the sensational newspapers and novels of so-called high life, which makes them greedy of de-tail about the lives of the rich or titled ; which leads still another class of persons to believe in panaceas, in political millenniums, in royal roads and short-cuts to health, wealth, and happiness ; and still another class to cherish religious myths and legends. Imagination may become morbid, it may turn into credulity or superstition if the right food is not presented to it and the wrong food is ever present ; yet the states of mind of which we have spoken represent in a way the poetry of the lives over which they hold sway. Vernon Lee, speaking of a crowd of persons gazing eagerly in at a jeweler's window, charitably concludes, "People distil the poetry needful for healthy life out of many and very different things, and most appeals to the imagination are, after all, better than nothing."
Yes, they are better than nothing; but what a pity, when we have it in our power to provide the most exquisite diet for this fairy-like constituent of the mind, that we should neglect that provision and let it go browsing about in the muck-heaps and gutters like a starved, neglected child ! Fortunately the last ten or twelve years have brought this general neglect to the attention of educators, and anthologies of poetry for children and for young people have issued from the press thick and fast. It is sufficient that the child who reads easily and is fond of reading should have poetry of various kinds where he can have access to it in his home or, failing that, at the children's library. He will soon find the kinds that appeal to him at successive stages of development. A good anthology, such as Dana's or Bryant's, covering the poets of all times and all countries, will meet his needs for years. But the child not yet old enough to read easily and understandingly ; the active, nervous child who cannot be pinned down to a book; the prosaic child whose modicum of imagination needs to be stirred as continually as 'a wood fire,—all these do not drift unerringly toward poetry even if it is placed within their reach. The older anthologies do not answer their need. Book covers must be attractive, there should be occasional pictures, and above all, there should be read aloud to them such poetry as they are ready for.
Having done with rhymes and jingles, they are usually ready for the ballad and the story poem of a certain grade, such as Mrs. Hemans' "Bernardo del Carpio," Rogers' "Ginevra," some of Lockhart's "Ballads of the Cid," and Macaulay's "Lays."
Most children are appealed to by Longfellow, his simple musical lines and easily grasped figures having a charm that lasts for years, and, indeed, for life, in many eases.
The pictorial poem, of which Longfellow's "Rain in Summer" is a good example, comes a little later, and these may be as far apart in subject as this poem from Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes." In the former the pictures are simple and homely, in the latter glowing and sumptuous, and the child who cares for the one kind of picture may not care for the other; but in either case his feeling for words as the tools of a painter is bound to deepen and his enjoyment in the art of poetry to increase.
The narrative poem in blank verse, such as "Sohrab and Rustum," and the dramatic poem, of which "The Ancient Mariner" and "The Forsaken Merman" are instances, would probably appeal to some children of ten and eleven, and certainly to most children of twelve and thirteen, the last-named with a slight preliminary explanation.
I had the experience at one time of reading English poetry with two little girls of nine and twelve. The elder was so impressed by the "Eve of St. Agnes" that, of her own accord, she learned the forty-two stanzas by heart ; while the other, who disliked reading and could rarely be induced to open a book, was discovered, after my reading aloud of a part of "The Ancient Mariner," huddled up in a corner poring over the poem in the deepest absorption.
The lyric poem, with its singing quality, its verbal felicities, and, often, epigrammatic touches, is the high-water mark of poetry for a child. When he has begun to enjoy reflective and contemplative poetry, he is, as a rule, no longer to be regarded as a child. To some lyrics children respond very early, such, for instance, as Whitman's "0 Captain, my Captain!" and "The Tiger," by William Blake.
The poem with a refrain, such as Riley's "Dream March," Sidney Lanier's "Song of the Chattahoochee," and Parsons' "Dirge for one who fell in battle," all appeal to children through the refrain, for they enjoy repetition.
The nature poem makes its claim almost entirely on the child who is fond of nature. In a children's library that I know, in a large city, it has been the practice to copy and post on the walls bits of verse about the seasons, the flowers and trees, the sea, etc., and children as young as nine and ten have been found copying these because they liked them. With the return to nature which seems to be taking place among city dwellers, and the longer stay in the country, each year, the love of nature must soon be reawakened among us, and then the poems of nature, such as Robert Bridges' "London Snow, Buchanan Read's "In Paradise," Sydney Dobell's "Home, Wounded," and many others not now favorites with boys and girls, will come into their own.
The value of poetry as food for an imagination that will be fed—if not on one thing, then on another,—its value as a relief from the pressure of daily life and as a light reflecting prismatic colors on our everyday paths—is a value to the individual; but it has its place also as a factor of great value in the national life.
We are known the world over as a nation of money-grubbers, whose ideals are materialistic and whose standards of right have gradually dropped until sophistry is no longer needed to justify wrong if the wrong spells success. In other words, our imaginations have fed on stories of money and the power of money to the point where they reject all other food.
But the imaginations of the little children are not yet poisoned, and if we accept our responsibility toward them on this point, we may yet say of their young spirits that they have "fed on honey dew And drunk the milk of Paradise."