POETRY AS A MEANS OF CULTURE
Poetry takes first rank as a means of intellectual culture. Goethe tells us that we ought to see a good picture, hear good music, and read some good poetry every day; and, certainly, a little poetry should form part of the evening lecture. "Collections" of poems are to be eschewed; but some one poet should have at least a year to himself, that he may have time to do what is in him towards cultivating the seeing eye, the hearing ear, the generous heart.
Scott, of course, here as before, opens the ball, if only for the chivalry, the youthful enthusiasm of his verse. Then, there is always a stirring story in the poem, which is a recommendation to the young reader. Cowper, who does not tell many stories, is read with pleasure by boys and girls almost as soon as they begin to care for Scott; the careful, truthful word-painting of The Task, unobscured by poetic fancies, appears to suit the matter-of-fact young mind. It is pleasant, too, to know poetry which there are frequent opportunities of verifying:––
"Now from the roost, or from the neighb'ring pale,
Come trooping, at the housewife's well-known call,
The feather'd tribes domestic:"––
who that has ever been in the country has not seen that? Goldsmith, and some others, take their places beside Cowper, to be read or not, as occasion offers. It is doubtful if Milton, sublime as he is, is so serviceable for the culture of the "unlearned and ignorant" as are some less distinguished poets; he gets out of reach, into regions of scholarship and fancy, where these fail to follow. Nevertheless, Milton must be duly read; the effort to follow his "high themes" is culture in itself. Also, "Christopher North" is right; good music and fine poetry need not be understood to be enjoyed:––
Together both, ere the high lawns appeared
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove a-field, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star, that rose at evening bright,
Toward heaven's descent had sloped his westering wheel:"––
the youth who carries about with him such melodious cadences will not readily be taken with tinsel. The epithets of Lycidas alone are an education of the poetic sense.
Many of us will feel that Wordsworth is the poet to read, and grow thereby. He, almost more than any other English poet of the last century, has proved himself a power, and a power for good, making for whatever is true, pure, simple, teachable; for what is supersensuous, at any rate, if not spiritual.
The adventures of Una and her tardy, finally victorious knight offer great food for the imagination, lofty teaching, and fine culture of the poetic sense. It is a misfortune to grow up without having read and dreamt over the Faerie Queene.
There is no space to glance at even the few poets each of whom should have his share in the work of cultivating the mind. After the ploughing and harrowing, the seed will be appropriated by a process of natural selection; this poet will draw disciples here, that, elsewhere; but it is the part of parents to bring the minds of their children under the influence of the highest, purest poetic thought we have. As for Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and others of the "lords of language," it may be well to let them wait this same process of selection.
And Shakespeare? He, indeed, is not to be classed, and timed, and treated as one amongst others,––he, who might well be the daily bread of the intellectual life; Shakespeare is not to be studied in a year; he is to be read continuously throughout life, from ten years old and onwards. But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which every one takes according to his needs, and leaves what he has no stomach for? A little girl of nine said to me the other day that she had only read one play of Shakespeare's through, and that was A Midsummer Night's Dream. She did not understand the play, of course, but she must have found enough to amuse and interest her. How would it be to have a monthly reading of Shakespeare––a play, to be read in character, and continued for two or three evenings until it is finished? The Shakespeare evening would come to be looked on as a family festa; and the plays, read again and again, year after year, would yield more at each reading, and would leave behind in the end rich deposits of wisdom.
It is unnecessary to say a word about the great later poets, Browning, Tennyson, and whoever else stands out from the crowd; each will secure his own following of young disciples from amongst those who have had the poetic taste developed; and to develop this appreciative power, rather than to direct its use, is the business of the parents.
So much for the evening readings, which will in themselves carry on the intellectual culture we have in view: given, the right book, family sympathy in the reading of it, and easy talk about it, and the rest will take care of itself.
The evening readings should be entertaining, and not of a kind to demand severe mental effort; but the long holidays are too long for mere intellectual dawdling. Every Christmas and summer vacation should be marked by the family reading of some great work of literary renown, whether of history, or purely of belles lettres. The daily reading and discussion of one such work will give meaning and coherence to the history "grind" of the school, will keep up a state of mental activity, and will add zest to the general play and leisure of the holidays.
Yet be it confessed, that in the matter of reading, this sort of spoon-feeding is not the best thing, after all. Far better would it be that the young people should seek out their own pastures, the parents doing no more than keep a judicious eye upon their rovings. But the fact is, young people are so taken up with living, that, as a rule, they do not read nowadays; and it is possible that a course of spoon-meat may help them over an era of feeble digestive power, and put them in the way of finding their proper intellectual nourishment.