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!

Sunday 7 June 2015

Silent Service in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

In so many novels, what we call ‘plot’ is really a series of revelations. A mystery is resolved, characters come to understand each others’ motivations, secrets are made common knowledge, and society can move on. Life may be filled with unexplained occurrences, but in the Victorian novel – whether realist or sensational – it is rare for a text to end with even one of its events still shrouded in obscurity for its characters.

In this, as in so many ways, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851-3) is a strange novel. Whether the series of stories, first appearing in Household Words, can be called a novel at all has been hotly debated. They clearly weren’t initially designed as such, they are tonally dissonant, and they are narrated by a character – Mary Smith – who is herself shrouded in never-to-be-explained mystery. Yet one of Gaskell’s most interesting deviations from readerly expectations is in her repeated concentration on (particularly selfless) acts that are never revealed.

The cast of the BBC's adaptation of Cranford (2007)
The narrator Mary, for instance, is instrumental in returning the errant Peter to his long lost sister Miss Matty. Yet her part in this happy event is never made clear to the other characters and she suffers intense guilt about having interfered at all. She even claims that she is usually at fault for being indiscreet, even though we see her act throughout the novel with the utmost discretion and tact:

In my own home, whenever people had nothing else to do, they blamed me for want of discretion.  Indiscretion was my bug-bear fault.  Everybody has a bug-bear fault, a sort of standing characteristic—a pièce de résistance for their friends to cut at; and in general they cut and come again.  I was tired of being called indiscreet and incautious; and I determined for once to prove myself a model of prudence and wisdom. 

This is not the only example. Again and again through the novel, characters protect each others’ feelings with acts of service that are never spoken of, most climactically when the Cranford ladies band together to save Miss Matty from financial ruin and supplement her income. This kindness is not only never known by the recipient, it also involves secrecy amongst the group:

Every lady wrote down the sum she could give annually, signed the paper, and sealed it mysteriously.  If their proposal was acceded to, my father was to be allowed to open the papers, under pledge of secrecy.

These hidden demonstrations of care and affection are definitely gendered. Cranford is dominated by women, but the men who do live there are able to act in a more straightforward manner, whether they are acting carelessly (like the young cross-dressing Peter who recklessly endangers his sister’s reputation) or, like Captain Brown, being kind in a much more direct and highly visible manner:

We…discussed the circumstance of the Captain taking a poor old woman’s dinner out of her hands one very slippery Sunday.  He had met her returning from the bakehouse as he came from church, and noticed her precarious footing; and, with the grave dignity with which he did everything, he relieved her of her burden, and steered along the street by her side, carrying her baked mutton and potatoes safely home.  This was thought very eccentric.

Mary’s comments about her friends’ remarks on her indiscretion point to why this might be so. Cranford’s women are conditioned to obey certain social strictures, even when acting on behalf of those other than themselves. This is not to say that they are repressed – they vigorously defend and enforce these social norms, as they give them a sense of community and identity.

Gaskell’s strange novel then – where plot is secondary, and quiet community is preferred to overt demonstration – could be seen as a novel that is particularly female. In its 16 chapters, she examines the condition of spinsterhood from many angles – often with humour, sometimes with pathos. And in her concentration on the acts of service that so often go unseen, she gives us not only a model for a novel about a women, she gives us a glimpse into women’s history.

Which lesser-known Victorian text would you like the Secret Victorianist to write on next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!