Sunday 21 June 2015

Introducing Victorian Poetry to Children

A few months ago, I posted my top tips for introducing your kids to Victorian literature with the belief that their first run-in with Dickens, Bronte or Hardy doesn’t have to be a painful classroom encounter. In this post, I offer some suggestions for making nineteenth-century poetry in particular more fun and less intimidating.

1. Start with poems written for kids: Many nineteenth-century poems, especially those in the nonsense poetry tradition, were written to be read by (or read to) children. One of my favourites is Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, published in 1871, which he originally penned for a three-year-old girl. It begins:

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.

Edward Lear's illustration for 'The Owl and the Pussycat'
The poem is great because it has a lot of similarities with the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and modern children’s books young children may already be used to reading or hearing.

2. Choose poems with a story: Even if not primarily intended for children, poems with a narrative are a much easier introduction to poetry and there are many Victorian examples that may appeal to older kids.

'The Lady of Shallott', John William Waterhouse (1888)
I would recommend Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ (1833) and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1859). Both have linear stories with clear conclusions and tap into mythic tropes and traditions children will already be comfortable with. Both are also highly visual, marking a great opportunity for asking kids how they imagine the world of each poem. You could even have them draw scenes from the poems or look at artists’ interpretations.

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries; —
All ripe together
In summer weather

3. Use poems kids may have encountered elsewhere: A lot of nineteenth-century poems are so famous they are quoted and referenced in many other forms of entertainment. Why not show your kids a Simpsons episode to get them interested in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845)? You’ll even get some bonus critical commentary from Lisa.

4. When in doubt go with simple language: You shouldn’t underestimate children’s ability to respond to mature themes and complex ideas, but giving them a poem where they need to look up every second word of vocabulary may be a stretch. Instead start with poems like Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ (1862) or Emily Dickinson’s ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ (1891), which shouldn’t pose a challenge in terms of individual words. That way you can go straight into a discussion of how the poems make them feel and what they think they’re trying to say.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know! 

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

5. Don’t underestimate the power of love: As children move into their teenage years they may find famous romantic (with a small ‘r’!) poems the most compelling (and/or cringe-worthy). Give them XLIII from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and you might even inspire them to start attempting the sonnet form themselves!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

What topic would you like the Secret Victorianist to blog on next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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