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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Literature and Childhood"

Literature and Childhood
The Speaker, November 24, 1900

The Junior Temple Reader. By Clara Linklater Thomson and E. E. Speight, B.A. London: Horace Marshall

The compilers of this collection have laid down for themselves in the preface a genuine and seriously needed principle, and have from time to time observed it admirably, and with dramatic suddenness. They say, with perfect truth, that "such reading-books are too often written down to children, instead of being made the models by which their taste is formed." Undoubtedly looking down and speaking down and writing down to the human soul have been the sterilising curses of education. That everything should look up to everything else may be a little bewildering as geometry, but like many other impossibilities, it is simple and successful in morals. But we cannot imagine that the compilers mean that all things are equally suitable in a book for children or that they would cheerfully bring out a sequel consisting of selections from The Amazing Marriage, interspersed with popular recitations from Mallarme. They have so far fulfilled their own excellent principle that they have collected in this volume a number of noble fragments of literary art which it is highly probable that the most adventurous child might not find in the family book-case. The pleasure of reading a manly English translation of the death of the great Paladin at Roncesvaux, for example, is sufficient to wipe out one's annoyance at finding a piece of sentimental German romanticism, like Wieland's Huon of Bordeaux, placed like an artificial rockery beside the morning mountain of the Song of Roland.

But the compilers of this educational work have violated their own principle in a more subtle and a more universal way. They have yielded to that singular delusion which dominates books with a far less logical intention, the delusion that the child as such is interesting to children. This is a mistake which any hack-journalist would despise. Every one is interested in the local colour of foreign travel, but a book entitled Strange Adventures among the Aborigines of Clapham would not gratify the inhabitants of that suburb. Yet the customs of Clapham are, to the true philosophic traveller, weird and even terrifying. So the eternal value of children to maturity is that they are a palpable scientific elfland, but the essence of elves is unconsciousness and utter solemnity. The books that should be set before children are books of play and ceremonial, and pomp and war: the whole gloria mundi, the whole pageant of history, full of blood and pride, may safely be told them- everything but the secret of their own incomparable influence. Children need to be taught primarily the grandeur of the whole world. It is merely the whole world that needs to be taught the grandeur of children.

Upon this error a great part of this collection, like most other collections, splits like a ship upon a rock. The compilers have honourably rejected bad literature, but they seem to have had the idea that they had only to find a piece of good literature referring to children and to submit it affectionately to the child. They might as well take a copy of Marshall on The Frog and affectionately throw it into a frog-pond. How grotesque it is, when once the mind is set seriously on the matter, to put before a child, as here, a poem like Blake's "Little Black Boy," or, for the matter of that, any poem of Blake's. A child appreciates rhythm, and Blake hardly observes prosody; a child loves pomp and battle, and Blake was a worshipper of nudity and crudity and peace at any price; a child is censorious of detail, and Blake is often, to a censorious mind, mere doggerel. The splendours of his poetry are a clarity which is more unfathomable than darkness and a purity which is like the purity of white hair. He called some of his poems "Songs of Innocence," but in truth all of them, and more especially the simplest, were "Songs of Experience." There was not one rhyme that a boy could have written, except, perhaps, the gorgeous and swaggering tragedy of Edward III.

The same fault must be found with the insertion of the beautiful "Cradle Song" of Mr. W. B. Yeats, called here (for some dark educational reason) Mr. W. A. Yeats. It is the song of a mother, and any child should be sent to bed who pretended to understand it. The fallacy extends even to the illustrations. The compilers have been foolish enough to employ largely an artist who works in a style of pure line-illustration as pale as the silver point of Raphael and aspiring after the manner of Burne-Jones. Even where this is done excellently it is wholly unfitted for children, for it requires a technical luxuriousness to appreciate the billowing beauty of a single line; it is a perfect instance of the unfitness of simplicity for the simple. The most distressing example is a picture from that portentous Scandinavian fable about the travels of Thor- how he could not drink from a horn because the horn was the sea and could not lift a cat because the cat was the world-serpent. No mortal should dare to depict that story, for it belongs to that tremendous borderland where the shapes of things hang loosely on them like disguises, and life is a metaphysical masquerade. But when we are shown a pre-Raphaelite youth like an emaciated Galahad and asked to believe that it is Thor, our "Berserker blood-rage" makes one of its rare appearances. This insolent lucidity will not do for children. It is the glory of the child as the type of the celestial that his mind is a house of windows. To surround him with child poems and pictures is to paint the panes outside with silver and make his mind, like the mind of a maniac, a house of mirrors.

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