XIII. Composition

Philosophy on Composition PDF

XIII. Composition

George Osborne's Essay––"What a prodigiously well-read and delightful person the Reverend Lawrence Veal was, George's Master! 'He knows everything,' Amelia said. 'He says there is no place in the bar or the senate that Georgy may not aspire to. Look here,' and she went to the piano-drawer and drew out a theme of George's composition. This great effort of genius, which is still in the possession of Georgy's mother, is as follows:

" 'On Selfishness.––Of all the vices which degrade the human character, Selfishness is the most odious and contemptible. An undue love of Self leads to the most monstrous crimes and occasions of the greatest misfortunes both in States and Families. As a selfish man will impoverish his family and often bring them to ruin; so a selfish king brings ruin on his people and often plunges them into war. Example: The selfishness of Achilles, as remarked by the poet Homer, occasioned a thousand woes to the Greeks––[a sentence in Greek follows here, from Homer's Illiad, A. 2). The selfishness of the late Napoleon Bonaparte occasioned innumerable wars in Europe, and caused him to perish, himself, in a miserable island––that of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

" 'We see by these ecamples that we are not to consult our own interest and ambition, but that we are to consider the interests of others as well as our own.––George S. Osborne.

" 'Athene House, 24 April 1827.'

" ' Think of him' (George was 10) 'writing such a hand, and quoting Greek too, at his age,' the delighted mother said."

And well might Mrs George Sedley be delighted. Would not many a mother to-day triumph in such a literary effort? What can Thackeray be laughing at? Or does he, in truth, give us this little 'theme' as a tour de force?

An Educational Futility.––I think this great moral teacher here throws down the gauntlet in challenge of an educational fallacy which is accepted, even in the twentieth century. That futility is the extraction of original composition from schoolboys and schoolgirls. The proper function of the mind of the young scholar is to collect material for the generalisations of after-life. If a child is asked to generalise, that is, to write an essay upon some abstract theme, a double wrong is done him. He is brought up before a stone wall by being asked to do what is impossible to him, and that is discouraging. But a worse moral injury happens to him in that, having no thought of his own to offer on the subject, he puts together such tags of commonplace thought as have come in his way and offers the whole as his 'composition,' an effort which puts a strain upon his conscience while it piques his vanity. In these days masters do not consciously put their hand to the work of their pupils as did that 'prodigiously well-read and delightful' master who had the educating of George Osborne. But, perhaps, without knowing it, they give the ideas which the cunning schoolboy seizes to 'stick' into the 'essay' he hates. Sometimes they do more. They deliberately teach children how to 'build a sentence' and how to 'bind sentences' together.

Lessons in Composition.––Here is a series of preliminary exercises (or rather a part of a series, which numbers 40) intended to help a child to write an essay on 'An Umbrella,' from a book of the hour proceeding from one of our best publishing houses: -

"Step I.

"1. What are you?
"2. How did you get your name?
"3. Who uses you?
"4. What were you once?
"5. What were you like then?
"6. Where were you obtained or found?
"7. Of what stuff or materials are you made?
"8. From what sources do you come?
"9. What are your parts?
"10. Are you made, grown, or fitted together?

*     *     *      *      *     *

"Step II.

"I am an umbrella, and am used by many people, young and old.
"I get my name from a word which means a shade.
"The stick came perhaps from America, and is quite smooth, even, and polished, so that the metal ring may slide easily up and down the stick.
"My parts are a frame and a cover. My frame consists of a stick about a yard long, wires, and a sliding metal band. At the lower end of the stick is a steel ferrule or ring. This keeps the end from wearing away when I am used in walking.

"Step III.

"Now use it, is, and was, instead of I, have, my, and am.

*     *     *      *      *     *


"Now write your own description of it."

Such Teaching a Public Danger.––And this is work intended for Standards VI. And VII.! That is to say, this kind of thing is the final literary effort to be exacted from children in our elementary schools!

The two volumes (I quote from near the end of the second and more advanced volume) are not to be gibbeted as exceptionally bad. A few years ago the appalling discovery was made that, both in secondary and elementary schools, 'composition' was dreadfully defective, and, therefore, badly taught. Since then many volumes have been produced, more or less on the lines indicated in the above citation, and distinguished publishers have not perceived that to offer to the public, with the sanction of their name, works of this sterilising and injurious character, is an offence against society. The body of a child is sacred in the eye of the law, but his intellectual powers may be annihilated on such starvation diet as this, and nothing said! The worst of it is, both authors and publishers in every case act upon the fallacy that well intentioned effort is always excusable, if not praiseworthy. They do not perceive that no effort is permissible towards the education of children without an intelligent conception, both of children, and of what is meant by education.

'Composition' comes by Nature.––In fact, lessons on 'composition' should follow the model of that famous essay on "Snakes in Ireland"––"There are none." For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration, varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know. Before they are ten, children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions. It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of full stops and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books. Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books. They should narrate in the first place, and they will compose, later readily enough; but they should not be taught 'composition.'