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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Reading
> IV. Childrens Reading (II)
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On the Art of Reading.
Childrens Reading (II)
Wednesday, February 21, 1917
our talk, Gentlemen, about Childrens Reading we left off upon a list, drawn up by Mr Holmes in his book What Is, and What Might Be of the things that, apart from physical nourishment and exercise, a child instinctively desires.
(1) to talk and to listen;
(2) to act (in the dramatic sense of the word);
(3) to draw, paint and model;
(4) to dance and sing;
(5) to know the why of things;
(6) to construct things.
Let us scan through this catalogue briefly, in its order.
To talk and to listen
Mr Holmes calls this
the communicative instinct.
Every child wants to talk with those about him, or at any rate with his chosen oneshis parents, brothers, sisters, nurse, governess, gardener, boot-boy (if he possess these last)with other children, even if his dear papa is poor: to tell them what he has been doing, seeing, feeling: and to listen to what they have to tell him.
Nos. (2), (3), (4).
our author calls this the dramatic instinct:
to draw, paint and model
this the artistic instinct:
to dance and sing
this the musical instinct. But obviously all these are what Aristotle would call mimetic instincts: imitative (in a sense I shall presently explain); even as No.(2)actinglike No.(1)talking and listeningcomes of craving for sympathy. In fact, as we go on, you will see that these instincts overlap and are not strictly separable, though we separate them just now for convenience.
To know the why of things
the inquisitive instinct. This, being the one which gives most trouble to parents, parsons, governesses, conventional schoolmastersto all grown-up persons who pretend to know what they dont and are ashamed to tell what they dois of course the most ruthlessly repressed.
The time is come, the Infant said,
To talk of many things:
Of babies, storks and cabbages
having studied the Evangelists Window facing the family pew
And whether cows have wings.
The answer, in my experience, is invariably stern, and in the negative: in tolerant moments compromising on Wait, like a good boy, and see.
But we singled out this instinct and discussed it in our last lecture.
To construct things
the constructive instinct. I quote Mr Holmes here:
After analysis comes synthesis. The child pulls his toys to pieces in order that he may, if possible, reconstruct them. The ends that he sets before himself are those which Comte set before the human race
savoir pout prévoir, afin de pouvoir: induire pour déduire, afin de construire.
The desire to make things, to build things up, to control ways and means, to master the resources of nature, to put his knowledge of her laws and facts to practical use, is strong in his soul. Give him a box of bricks, and he will spend hours in building and rebuilding houses, churches . Set him on a sandy shore with a spade and a pail, and he will spend hours in constructing fortified castles with deep encircling moats.
Again obviously this constructive instinct overlaps with the imitative ones. Construction, for example, enters into the art of making mud-pies and has also been applied in the past to great poetry. If you dont keep a sharp eye in directing this instinct, it may conceivably end in an
or in a
Without preaching on any of the others, however, I take three of the six instincts scheduled by Mr Holmesthe three which you will allow to be almost purely imitative. They are:
Drawing, painting, modelling,
Dancing and singing.
Now let us turn to the very first page of Aristotles
and what do we read?
Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and dithyrambic poetry, and the greater part of the music of the flute and of the lyre, are all, in general, modes of imitation .
For as there are persons who represent a number of things by colours and drawings, and others vocally, so it is with the arts above mentioned. They all imitate by rhythm, language, harmony, singly or combined.
Even dancing (he goes on)
imitates character, emotion and action, by rhythmical movement.
Now, having touched on mud-pies, let me say a few words upon these aesthetic imitative instincts of acting, dancing, singing before I follow Aristotle into his explanation of the origin of Poetry, which I think we may agree to be the highest subject of our Art of Reading and to hold promise of its highest reward.
Every wise mother sings or croons to her child and dances him on her knee. She does so by sure instinct, long before the small body can respond or his eyesalways blue at first and unfathomably agedreturn her any answer. It lulls him into the long spells of sleep so necessary for his first growth. By and by, when he has found his legs, he begins to skip, and even before he has found articulate speech, to croon for himself. Pass a stage, and you find him importing speech, drama, dance, incantation, into his games with his playmates. Watch a cluster of children as they enact
Here we go gathering nuts in May
eloquent line: it is just what they are doing!or
Here come three Dukes a-riding,
Fetch a pail of water,
Sally, Sally Waters:
Sally, Sally Waters,
Sitting in the sand,
Rise, Sallyrise, Sally,
For a young man.
Suitor presented, accepted [I have noted, by the way, that this game is more popular with girls than with boys]; wedding ceremony hastily performedso hastily, it were more descriptive to say taken for grantedwithin the circle; the dancers, who join hands and resume the measure, chanting
Now you are married, we wish you joy
First a girl and then a boy
the order, I suspect, dictated by exigencies of rhyme rather than of Eugenics, as Dryden confessed that a rhyme had often helped him to a thought. And yet I dont know; for the incantation goes on to redress the balance in a way that looks scientific:
Ten years after, son and daughter,
And now, Miss Sally, come out of the water.
The players end by supplying the applause which, in these days of division of labour, is commonly left to the audience.
Well, there you have it all: acting, singing, dancing, choral movementenlisted ancillary to the domestic drama: and, when you start collecting evidence of these imitative instincts blent in childhood the mass will soon amaze you and leave you no room to be surprised that many learned scholars, on the supposition that uncivilised man is a child more or lessand at least so much of child that one can argue through childrens practice to hishave found the historical origin of Poetry itself in these primitive performances: communal poetry as they call it. I propose to discuss with you (may be next term) in a lecture not belonging to this course the likelihood that what we call specifically the Ballad, or Ballad Poetry, originated thus. Here is a wider question. Did all Poetry develope out of this, historically, as a process in time and in fact? These scholars (among whom I will instance one of the most learnedDr Gummere) hold that it did: and I may take a passage from Dr Gummeres
Beginnings of Poetry
(p. 95) to show you how they call in the practice of savage races to support their theory. The Botocudos of South America areaccording to Dr Paul Ehrenreich who has observed them
an ungentlemanly tribe, very low in the social scale.
The Botocudos are little better than a leaderless horde, and pay scant respect to their chieftain; they live only for their immediate bodily needs, and take small thought for the morrow, still less for the past. No traditions, no legends, are abroad to tell them of their forbears. They still use gestures to express feeling and ideas; while the number of words which imitate a given sound is extraordinarily great. An action or an object is named by imitating the sound peculiar to it; and sounds are doubled to express greater intensity . To speak is
to speak loudly or to sing, is
And now for their aesthetic life, their song, dance, poetry, as described by this accurate observer. On festal occasions the whole horde meets by night round the camp fire for a dance. Men and women alternating form a circle; each dancer lays his arms about the necks of his two neighbours, and the entire ring begins to turn to the right or to the left, while all the dancers stamp strongly and in rhythm the foot that is advanced, and drag after it the other foot. Now with drooping heads they press closer and closer together; now they widen the circle. Throughout the dance resounds a monotonous song to which they stamp their feet. Often one can hear nothing but a continually repeated
Again, however, short improvised songs, in which we are told the doings of the day, the reasons for rejoicing, what not, as Good hunting, or Now we have something to eat, or Brandy is good.
As to the aesthetic value of these South American utterances, Dr Gummere asks in a footnote, how far is it inferior to the sonorous commonplaces of our own versesay
The Psalm of Life?
I really cannot answer that question. Which do you prefer, Gentlemen?Life is real, life is earnest, or Now we have something to eat. I must leave you to settle it with the Food Controller.
The Professor goes on:
Now and then, too, an individual begins a song, and is answered by the rest in chorus .
They never sing without dancing, never dance without singing, and have but one word to express both song and dance.
As the unprejudiced reader sees [Dr Gummere proceeds] this clear and admirable account confirms the doctrine of early days revived with fresh ethnological evidence in the writings of Dr Brown and of Adam Smith, that dance, poetry and song were once a single and inseparable function, and is in itself fatal to the idea of rhythmic prose, of solitary recitation, as foundations of poetry . All poetry is communal, holding fast to the rhythm of consent as to the one sure fact.
Now I should tell you, Gentlemen, that I hold such utterances as this lastwhatever you may think of the utterances of the Botocudosto be exorbitant: that I distrust all attempts to build up (say)
historically from the yells and capers of recondite savages. Life is real, life is earnest may be no better aesthetically (I myself think it a little better) than Now we have something to eat. Brandy is good may rival Pindars [Greek3] and indeed puts what it contains of truth with more of finality, less of provocation (though Pindar at once follows up [Greek4] with exquisite poetry): but you cannottruly you cannotexhibit the steps which lead up from Brandy is good to such lines as
Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summers rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine.
I bend over the learned page pensively, and I seem to see a Botocudo Professorthough not high in the social scale, they may have such thingsvisiting Cambridge on the last night of the Lent races and reporting of its inhabitants as follows:
They pay scant heed to their chiefs: they live only for their immediate bodily needs, and take small thought for the morrow. On festal occasions the whole horde meets by night round the camp fire for a dance. Each dancer lays his arms about the necks of his two neighbours, stamping strongly with one foot and dragging the other after it. Now with drooping heads they press closer and closer together; now they widen the circle. Often one can hear nothing but a continually repeated
or again one hears short improvised songs in which we are told the doings of the day, the reasons for rejoicing, what not, as Good hunting, Good old [naming a tribal God], or in former times
we shall be but a short while, or
Now and then, too, an individual begins a song and is answered by the rest in chorussuch as
For he is an estimable person
Beyond possibility of gainsaying.
The chorus twice repeats this and asseverates that they are following a custom common to the flotilla, the expeditionary force, and even their rude seats of learning.
And Dr Gummere, or somebody else, comments: As the unprejudiced reader will see, this clear and admirable account confirms our hypothesis that in communal celebration we have at once the origin and model of two poems,
recorded as having been composed by members of this very tribe.
Although we have been talking of instincts, we are not concerned here with the steps by which the child, or the savage, following an instinct attains to
poetry; but, more modestly, with the instinct by which the child
it, and the way in which he can be best encouraged to read and improve this natural liking. Nor are we even concerned here to define Poetry. It suffices our present purpose to consider Poetry as the sort of thing the poets write.
But obviously if we find a philosopher discussing poetry without any reference to children, and independently basing it upon the very same imitative instincts which we have noted in children, we have some promise of being on the right track.
So I return to Aristotle. Aristotle (I shall in fairness say) does not anticipate Dr Gummere, to contradict or refute him; he may even be held to support him incidentally. But he sticks to business, and this is what he says (
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, and these natural causes. First the instinct to imitate is implanted in man from his childhood, and in this he differs from other animals, being the most imitative of them all. Man gets his first learning through imitation, and all men delight in seeing things imitated. This is clearly shown by experience .
To imitate, then, being instinctive in our nature, so too we have an instinct for harmony and rhythm, metre being manifestly a species of rhythm: and man, being born to these instincts and little by little improving them, out of his early improvisations created Poetry.
Combining these two instincts, with him, we arrive at
Well and good. But what is it we imitate in poetry?noble things or mean things? After considering this, putting mean things aside as unworthy, and voting for the noblerwhich must at the same time be true, since without truth there can be no real nobilityAristotle has to ask In what way true? True to ordinary life, with its observed defeats of the right by the wrong? or true, as again instinct tells good men it should be,
So he arrives at his conclusion that a true thing is not necessarily truth of fact in a world where truth in fact is so often belied or made meaninglessnot the record that Alcibiades went somewhere and suffered somethingbut truth to the Universal, the superior demand of our conscience. In such a way only we know that
The Ancient Mariner
can be truer than any police report. Yet we know that they are truer in essence, and in significance, since they appeal to eternal veritiessince they imitate the Universalwhereas the police report chronicles (faithfully, as in duty bound, even usefully in its way) events which may, nay must, be significant somehow but cannot at best be better to us than phenomena, broken ends and shards.
I return to the child. Clearly in obeying the instinct which I have tried to illustrate, he is searching to realise himself; and, as educators, we ought to help this effortor, at least, not to hinder it.
Further, if we agree with Aristotle, in this searching to realise himself through imitation, what will the child most nobly and naturally imitate? He will imitate what Aristotle calls the Universal, the superior demand. And does not this bring us back to consent with what I have been preaching from the start in this coursethat to realise ourselves in
not only in degree transcends mere knowledge and activity,
but transcends it in kind? It is not only what the child unconsciously longs for: it is that for which (in St Pauls words) the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now; craving for this (I make you the admission) as emotionally as the heart may be thrilled, the breast surge, the eyes swell with tears, at a note drawn from the violin: feeling that somewhere, beyond reach, we have a lost sister, and she speaks to our soul.
Who, that has been a child, has not felt this surprise of beauty, the revelation, the call of it?
The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion
yes, or a rainbow on the spray against a cliff; or a vista of lawns between descending woods; or a vision of fish moving in a pool under the hazels shadow? Who has not felt the small surcharged heart labouring with desire to express it?
I preach to you that the base of all Literature, of all Poetry, of all Theology, is one, and stands on one rock:
the very highest Universal Truth is something so simple that a child may understand it.
This, surely, was in Jesus mind when he said I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.
For as the Universe is one, so the individual human souls, that apprehend it, have no varying values intrinsically, but one equal value. They vary but in power to apprehend, and this may be more easily hindered than helped by the conceit begotten of finite knowledge. I shall even dare to quote of this Universal Truth, the words I once hardily put into the mouth of John Wesley concerning divine Love: I see now that if Gods love reach up to every star and down to every poor soul on earth, it must be vastly simple; so simple that all dwellers on Earth may be assured of itas all who have eyes may be assured of the planet shining yonder at the end of the streetand so vast that all bargaining is below it, and they may inherit it without considering his deserts. I believe this to be strictly and equally true of the appeal which Poetry makes to each of us, child or man, in his degree. As Johnson said of Grays
it abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. It exalts us through the best of us, by telling us something new yet not strange, something that we
something that we too have known, or surmised, but had never the delivering speech to tell. There is a pleasure in poetic pains, says Wordsworth: but, Gentlemen, if you have never felt the travail, yet you have still to understand the bliss of deliverance.
If, then, you consent with me thus far in theory, let us now drive at practice. You have (we will say) a class of thirty or forty in front of you. We will assume that they know their
can at least spell out their words. You will choose a passage for them, and you will not (if you are wise) choose a passage from
your knowledge telling you that
was written, late in his life, by a great
and older men (of whom I, sad to say, am one) assuring you that to taste the Milton of
a man must have passed his thirtieth year. You take the early Milton: you read out this, for instance, from
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and Becks, and wreathed Smiles
Such as hang on Hebes cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides .
Go on: just read it to them. They wont know who Hebe was, but you can tell them later. The metre is taking hold of them (in my experience the metre of
can be relied upon to grip children) and anyway they can see Laughter holding both his sides: they recognise it as if they saw the picture. Go on steadily:
Come, and trip it as ye go,
On the light fantastick toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;
And, if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew
Do not pause and explain what a Nymph is, or why Liberty is the Mountain Nymph! Go on reading: the Prince has always to break through briers to kiss the Sleeping Beauty awake. Go on with the incantation calling him, persuading him, that he is the Prince and she is worth it. Go on reading
Mirth, admit me of thy crew,
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreprovéd pleasures free;
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-towre in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise.
At this pointstill as you read without stopping to explain, the child certainly feels that he is being led to something. He knows the lark: but the larks watch-towrehe had never thought of that: and the dappled dawnyes thats just
now he comes to think:
Then to come, in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good-morrow,
Through the sweet-briar or the vine
Or the twisted eglantine;
While the cock with lively din
Scatters the rear of Darkness thin;
And to the stack, or the barn door,
Stoutly struts his dames before:
Oft listening how the hounds and horn
Cheerily rouse the slumbering Morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill:
Sometime walking, not unseen,
By hedgerow elms on hillocks green,
Right against the eastern gate,
Where the great sun begins his state,
Robed in flames and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries dight;
While the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles oer the furrowd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his sithe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Dont stop (I say) to explain that Hebe was (for once) the legitimate daughter of Zeus and, as such, had the privilege to draw wine for the gods. Dont even stop, just yet, to explain who the gods were. Dont discourse on amber, otherwise ambergris; dont explain that gris in this connexion doesnt mean grease; dont trace it through the Arabic into Noahs Ark; dont prove its electrical properties by tearing up paper into little bits and attracting them with the mouth-piece of your pipe rubbed on your sleeve. Dont insist philologically that when every shepherd tells his tale he is not relating an anecdote but simply keeping tally of his flock.
Just go on reading, as well as you can; and be sure that when the children get the thrill of it, for which you wait, they will be asking more questions, and pertinent ones, than you are able to answer.
This advice, to be sure, presupposes of the teacher himself some capacity of reading aloud, and reading aloud is not taught in our schools. In our Elementary Schools, in which few of the pupils contemplate being called to Holy Orders or to the Bar, it is practised, indeed, but seldom taught as an art. In our Secondary and Public Schools it is neither taught nor practised: as I know to my costand you, to yours, Gentlemen, on whom I have had to practise.
But let the teacher take courage. First let him read a passage at the long breathas the French sayaloud, and persuasively as he can. Now and then he may pause to indicate some particular beauty, repeating the line before he proceeds. But he should be sparing of these interruptions. When Laughter, for example, is already holding both his sides it cannot be less than officious, a work of supererogation, to stop and hold them for him; and he who obeys the counsel of perfection will read straight to the end and then recur to particular beauties. Next let him put up a child to continue with the tale, and another and another, just as in a construing class. While the boy is reading, the teacher should
interrupt: he should wait, and return afterwards upon a line that has been slurred or wrongly emphasised. When the children have done reading he should invite questions on any point they have found puzzling: it is with the operation of poetry on
minds that his main business lies. Lastly, he may run back over significant points they have missed.
And is that all the method?Yes, that is all the method. So simple as that?Yes, even so simple as that, and (I claim) even so wise, seeing that it just lets the authorChaucer or Shakespeare or Milton or Coleridgehave his own own way with the young plantjust lets them drop like the gentle rain from heaven, and soak in.
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside.
Do you really want to chat about
Cannot you trust it?
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersmans face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.
you tell them that for the Moon to hold a star anywhere within her circumference is an astronomical impossibility? Very well, then; tell it. But tell it afterwards, and put it away quietly. For the quality of Poetry is not strained. Let the rain soak; then use your hoe, and gently; and still trust Nature; by which, I again repeat to you, all spirit attracts all spirit as inevitably as all matter attracts all matter.
Strained. I am glad that memory flew just here to the word of Portias: for it carries me on to a wise page of Dr Corsons, and a passage in which, protesting against the philologers who cram our childrens handbooks with irrelevant information that but obscures what Chaucer or Shakespeare
he breaks out in Chaucers own words:
Thise cookes! how they stampe and streyne and grind,
And turnen substaunce into accident!
(Yes, and make the accident the substance!)as he insists that the true subject of literary study is the authors meaning; and the true method a surrender of the mind to that meaning, with what Wordsworth calls a wise passiveness:
The eyeit cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, whereer they be,
Against or with our will.
Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
Think you, mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
I have been talking to-day about children; and find that most of the while I have been thinking, if but subconsciously, of poor children. Now, at the end, you may ask Why, lecturing here at Cambridge, is he preoccupied with poor children who leave school at fourteen and under, and thereafter read no poetry? Oh, yes! I know all about these children and the hopeless, wicked waste; these with a common living-room to read in, a father tired after his days work, and (for parental encouragement) just the two words Get out! A Scots domine writes in his log:
I have discovered a girl with a sense of humour. I asked my qualifying class to draw a graph of the attendance at a village kirk. And you must explain away any rise or fall, I said.
Margaret Steel had a huge drop one Sunday, and her explanation was Special Collection for Missions. Next Sunday the Congregation was abnormally large: Margaret wrote Change of Minister. Poor Margaret! When she is fourteen, she will go out into the fields, and in three years she will be an ignorant country bumpkin.
Robert Campbell (a favourite pupil) left the school to-day. He had reached the age-limit . Truly it is like death: I stand by a new made grave, and I have no hope of a resurrection. Robert is dead.
Precisely because I have lived on close terms with this, and the wicked waste of it, I appeal to you who are so much more fortunate than this Robert or this Margaret and will have far more to say in the world, to think of themhow many they are. I am not sentimentalising. When an Elementary Schoolmaster spreads himself and tells me he looks upon every child entering his school as a potential Lord Chancellor, I answer that, as I expect, so I should hope, to die before seeing the world a Woolsack. Jack cannot ordinarily be as good as his master; if he were, he would be a great deal better. You have given Robert a vote, however, and soon you will have to give it to Margaret. Can you not give them also, in their short years at school, something to sustain their souls in the long Valley of Humiliation?
Do you remember this passage in
The Pilgrims Progress
as the pilgrims passed down that valley?
Now as they were going along and talking, they espied a Boy feeding his Fathers Sheep. The Boy was in very mean Cloaths, but of a very fresh and well-favoured Countenance, and as he sate by himself he Sung. Hark, said Mr Greatheart, to what the Shepherds Boy saith.
Well, it was a very pretty song, about Contentment.
He that is down need fear no fall,
He that is low, no Pride:
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his Guide.
But I care less for its subject than for the song. Though life condemn him to live it through in the Valley of Humiliation, I want to hear the Shepherd Boy singing.
The reference given is
Zeitschr. f. Ethnologie,
30 ff. [
to shop the