On the Reading of Poetry…


The Golden Numbers — I believe is the best Children’s Poetry Anthology out there. It was published in the wake of last century and I cannot but share the opening word of its publishers, as it gives such an amazing insight into reading of poetry. I went to the book one time too many to re-read it, so finally I decided to post it here for my reference and inspiration, and perhaps for yours too?

On the Reading of Poetry

There is no doubt, I fear, that certain people are born without, as certain other people are born with, a love of poetry. Any natural gift is a great advantage, of course, be it physical, mental, or spiritual. The dear old tales which suggest the presence of fairies at the cradle of the new-born child, dealing out, not very impartially, talents, charms, graces, are not so far from the real truth. You may have been given a straight nose, a rosy cheek, a courteous manner, a lively wit, a generous disposition; but perhaps the Fairy Fine-Ear, who hears the grass grow, and the leaf-buds throb, had a pressing engagement at somebody else’s cradle-side when you most needed her benefactions. There is another elf too, a Dame o’ Dreams; she is clad all in color-of-rose, and when she touches your eyelids you see visions forever after; beautiful haunting things hidden from duller eyes, visions made of stars and dew and magic. Never any great poet lived but these two fairies were present at his birth, and it may be that they stole a[Pg xxxii] moment to visit you. If such was the case you love, need, crave poetry, to understand yourself, your neighbor, the world, God; and you will find that nothing else will satisfy you so completely as the years go on. If, on the other hand, these highly mythical but interesting personages were absent when the question of your natural endowment was being settled, do not take it too much to heart, but try to make good the deficiencies.

You must have liked the rhymes and jingles of your nursery-days:

Ride a Cock-horseTo Banbury Cross!


Mistress Mary quite contraryHow does your garden grow?

I am certain you remember what pleasure it gave you to make “contrary” rhyme with “Mary” instead of pronouncing it in the proper and prosy way.

“But” you answer, “I did indeed like that sort of verse, and am still fond of it when it dances and prances, or trips and patters and tinkles; it is what is termed “sublime” poetry that is dull and difficult to understand; the verb is always a long distance from its subject; the punctuation comes in the middle of the lines, so that it reads like prose in spite of one, and it is[Pg xxxiii] generally sprinkled with allusions to Calypso, Œdipus, Eurydice, Hesperus, Corydon, Arethusa, and the Acroceraunian Mountains; or at any rate with people and places which one has to look up in the atlas and dictionary.”

Of course, all poems are not equally simple in sound and sense. It does not require much intelligence to read or chant Poe’s Raven, and if one does not quite understand it, one is so taken captive by the weird, haunting music of the lines, the recurrence of phrases and repetition of words, that one does not think about its meaning:

“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”Tis some visitor, I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—Only this, and nothing more.'”

The moment, however, that your eye falls upon the following lines from “Paradise Lost” you confess privately that if you were obliged to parse and analyze them the task would cause you a weary half-hour with Lindley Murray or Quackenbos.

“Adam the goodliest man of men since bornHis sons; the fairest of her daughters Eve.Under a tuft of shade that on a greenStood whispering soft, by a fresh fountain-side,They sat them down;”[Pg xxxiv]

Very well then, do not try to parse them; Paradise Lost was not written exclusively for the grammarians; content yourself with enjoying the picture; the frisking of the beasts of the earth, while Adam and Eve watched them from a fountain-side in Paradise.

No one need be ashamed of liking a good deal of rhyme and rhythm, swing and movement and melody in poetry; absolute perfection of form, though all too rarely attained, is one of the chief delights of the verse-lover. “The procession of beautiful sounds that is a poem,” says Walter Raleigh. It is quite natural to love the music of verse before you catch the deeper thought, and you feel, in some of the greatest poetry, as if only the angels could have put the melodious words together. There is more in this music than meets the eye or ear; it is what differentiates prose from poetry, which, to quote Wordsworth, is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. Prose it is said can never be too truthful or too wise, but song is more than mere Truth and Wisdom, it is the “rose upon Truth’s lips, the light in Wisdom’s eyes.” That is why the thought in it finds its way to the very heart of one and makes one glow and tremble, fills one with desire to do some splendid action, right some wrong, be something other[Pg xxxv] than one is, more noble, more true, more patient, more courageous.

We who have selected the poems in this book have had to keep in mind the various kinds of young people who are to read it. The boys may wish that there were more story and battle poems, and verses ringing with spirited and war-like adventures; the girls may think that there are too many already; while both, perhaps, may miss certain old favorites like Horatius or The Ancient Mariner, omitted because of their great length. Some of you will yawn if the book flies open at Milton; some will be bored whenever they chance upon Pope; others will never read Wordsworth except on compulsion. Romantic little maids will turn away from “Tacking Ship off Shore,” while their brothers will disdain “The Swan’s Nest Among the Reeds”; but it was necessary to make the book for all sorts and conditions of readers, and such a volume must contain a taste of the best things, whether your special palate is ready for them or not. When you are twenty-one you may say, loftily, “I do not care for Pope and Dryden, I prefer Spenser and Tennyson, or Ben Jonson and Herrick,” or whatever you really do prefer,—but now, although, of course, you have your personal likes and dislikes, you cannot be sure that they are based on anything real[Pg xxxvi] or that they will stand the test of time and experience.

So you will find between these covers we hope, a little of everything good, for we have searched the pages of the great English-speaking poets to find verses that you would either love at first sight, or that you would grow to care for as you learn what is worthy to be loved. Where we found one beautiful verse, quite simple and wholly beautiful, we have given you that, if it held a complete thought or painted a picture perfect in itself, even although we omitted the very next one, which perhaps would have puzzled and wearied the younger ones with its involved construction or difficult phraseology.

Will you think, I wonder, that this very simple talk is too informal to be quite proper when one remembers that it is to serve as introduction to the greatest poets that ever lived? Informality is very charming in its place, no doubt (for so the thought might cross your mind), but one does not use it with kings and queens; still the least things, you know, may sometimes explain or interpret the greatest. The brook might say, “I am nothing in myself, I know, but I am showing you the way to the ocean; follow on if you wish to see something really vast and magnificent.”

There are besides gracious courtesies to be observed[Pg xxxvii] on certain occasions. If a famous poet or author should chance to come to your village or city and appear before the people, someone would have to introduce the stranger and commend him to your attention; and if he did it modestly it would only be an act of kindliness; a wish to serve you and at the same time bespeak for him a gentle and a friendly hearing. Once introduced—Presto, change! If he is a great poet he is a great wizard; the words he uses, the method and manner in which he uses them, the cadence of his verse, the thoughts he calls to your mind, the way he brings the quick color to your cheek and the tear to your eye, all these savor of magic, nothing else. Who could be less than modest in his presence? Who could but wish to bring the whole world under his spell? You will readily be modest, too, when you confront these splendid poems, even although some of you may not wholly comprehend as yet their grandeur and their majesty; may not fully understand their claim to immortality. Where is there a girl who would not make a low curtsey to Shakespeare’s Silvia, Milton’s Sabrina, Wordsworth’s Lucy, or Mrs. Browning’s Elizabeth? And if there is a boy who could stand with his head covered before Horatius, Hervé Riel, Sir Launfal, or Motherwell’s Cavalier he is not one of those we had in[Pg xxxviii] mind when we made this book. Neither is it altogether the personality of hero or heroine that fills us with reverence; it is the beauty and perfection of the poem itself that almost brings us to our knees in worship. A little later on you will have the same feeling of admiration and awe for Shelley’s Skylark, Emerson’s Snow Storm, Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Keats’s Daybreak, and for many another poem not included in this book, to which you must hope to grow. For it is a matter of growth after all, and growth, in mind and spirit, as in body, is largely a matter of will. It is all ours, the beauty in the world: your task is merely to enter into possession. Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare are yours as much as another’s. The great treasury of inspiring thoughts that has been heaped together as the ages went by, that “rich deposit of the centuries,” is your heritage; if you wish to assert your heirship no one can say you nay; if you will to be a Crœsus in the things of the mind and spirit, no one can ever keep you poor.

We have brought you only English verse, so you must wait for the years to give you Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo, and many another; and of English verse we have only given a hint of the treasures in store for you later on.[Pg xxxix]

We have quoted you poems from the grand old masters, those “bards sublime,”

“Whose distant footsteps echoThrough the corridors of Time,”

and many a verse:—

—”from some humbler poetWhose songs gushed from his heartAs showers from the clouds of summer,Or tears from the eyelids start;Who through long days of labor,And nights devoid of ease,Still heard in his soul the musicOf wonderful melodies.”

Since you will not like everything in the book equally well, may we advise you how to use it? First find something you know and love, and read it over again. (Penitent, indeed, shall we be if it has been omitted!) The meeting will be like one with a dear playfellow and friend in a new and strange house, and the house will seem less strange after you have met and welcomed the friend.

Then search the pages until you see a verse that speaks to you instantly, catches your eye, begs you to read it, willy-nilly. There are dozens of such poems in this collection, as simple as if they had been written for six-year-olds instead of for the grown-up English-speaking[Pg xl] world: little masterpieces like Tennyson’s Brook, Kingsley’s Clear and Cool, Shakespeare’s Fairy Songs, Burns’s Mountain Daisy, Emerson’s Rhodora, Motherwell’s Blithe Bird, Hogg’s Skylark, Wordsworth’s Pet Lamb, Scott’s Ballads, and scores of others.

This so far is pure pleasure, but why not, as another step, find something difficult, something you instinctively draw back from? It will probably be Milton, Pope, Dryden, Browning, or Shelley. You cannot find any “story” in it; its rhymes do not run trippingly off the tongue; there are a few strange and unpronounceable words, the punctuation and phrasing puzzle you, and worse than all you are obliged to read it two or three times before you really understand its meaning. Very well, that is nothing to be ashamed of, and you surely do not want to be vanquished by a difficulty. You will realize some time or other that all learning, like all life, is a sort of obstacle race in which the strongest wins.

I once said to a dear old minister who was preaching to a very ignorant and unlearned congregation, “It must be very difficult, sir, for you to preach down to them”; for he was a man of rare scholarship and true wisdom;—”I try to be very simple a part of the time,” he answered, “but not always; about once a month I fling[Pg xli] the fodder so high in the rack that no man can catch at a single straw without stretching his neck!”

Now pray do not laugh at that illustration; smile if you will, but it serves the purpose. Just as we develop our muscles by exercising our bodies, so do we grow strong mentally and spiritually by this “stretching” process. You are not obliged to love an impersonal, remote, or complex poem intimately and passionately, but read it faithfully if you do not wish to be wholly blind and deaf to beauties of sense or sound that happier people see and hear. Joubert says most truly: “You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some with you,” but there are some splendid things in verse as in prose that you stand in too great awe of to love in any real, childlike way. It is never scenes from Paradise Lost that run through your mind when you are going to sleep. It is something with a lilt, like:

“Up the airy mountain,Down the rushy glen,We daren’t go a-huntingFor fear of little men;”

or a poem with a gallant action in it like Marco Bozzaris, or with a charming story like The Singing Leaves, or a mysterious and musical one, like Kubla Khan or The Bells, or something that[Pg xlii] when first you read it made you a little older and a little sadder, in an odd, unaccustomed way quite unlike that of real grief:

“A feeling of sadness and longingThat is not akin to painAnd resembles sorrow onlyAs the mist resembles rain.”

When you read that verse of Longfellow’s afterwards you see that he has expressed your mood exactly. That is what it means to be a poet, and that is what poetry is always doing for us; revealing, translating thoughts we are capable of feeling, but not expressing.

Perhaps you will not for a long time see the beauty of certain famous reflective poems like Gray’s Elegy, but we must include a few of such things whether they appeal to you very strongly or not, merely because it is necessary that you should have an acquaintance, if not a friendship, with lines that the world by common consent has agreed to call immortal. They show you, without your being conscious of it, show you by their lines “all gold and seven times refined,”—how beautiful the English language can be when it is used by a master of style. Young people do not think or talk very much about style, but they come under its spell unconsciously and respond to its influence quickly[Pg xliii] enough. To give a sort of definition: style is a way of saying or writing a thing so that people are compelled to listen. When you grow sensitive to beauty of language you become, in some small degree at least, capable of using it yourself. You could not, for instance, read daily these “honey-tongued” poets without gathering a little sweetness for your own unruly member.

There are certain spiritual lessons to be gained from many of these immortal poems, lessons which the oldest as well as the youngest might well learn. Turn to Milton’s Ode on his Blindness. It is not easy reading, but you will begin to care for it when experience brings you the meaning of the line, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” It is one of a class of poems that have been living forces from age to age; that have quickened aspiration, aroused energy, deepened conviction; that have infused a nobler ardor and loftier purpose into life wherever and whenever they were read.

Prefacing each of the divisions of this volume you will find a page or “interleaf” of comment on, and appreciation of, the poems that follow. These pages you may read or not as you are minded; they are only friendly or informal letters from an old traveller to a pilgrim who has just taken his staff in hand.[Pg xliv]

By and by you will add poem after poem to your list of favorites, and so, gradually, you will make your own volume of Golden Numbers, which will be far better than any book we can fashion for you. Perhaps you will copy single verses and whole poems in it and, later, learn them by heart. Such treasures of memory “will henceforth no longer be forgettable, detachable parts of your mind’s furniture, but well-springs of instinct forever.”

Kate Douglas Wiggin.