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THE superfluity of school-books which already exists, seems to make any further multiplication of them absurd, unless new ones should be better than the old ; and it is somewhat presumptuous to suppose that a better than so many existing compilations can be furnished—but as an instructor of young persons, I have felt the want of elementary books different from those in common use, and therefore I have composed them.
All that is new to a pupil stands in need of illustration, for without it his mind is rather overburthened than enriched by his acquirements. Oral instruction may furnish an enlightened commentary upon what is contained in school-books; still it would diminish the labour of instruction if school-books themselves should not only afford the principal matter of instruction, but lead the young to enquiry, and supply the helps which the understanding needs in order to make the finest writers intelligible ; and it appears to me that ordinary school-books are wholly deficient in this respect.
It is a matter of self-gratulation to many, that they were early made acquainted with the finest passages of English poetry, that these passages were safely stored in the memory before the imagination or the heart could be affected by their beauty, and that, in after life, when the higher powers have been cultivated they could discover their inspiration and enjoyments to have grown not only from nature but knowledge.
This is certainly true of many who have read Shakspeare and Milton as tasks, or because they loved the sound of their words and that this fondness for the sound of poetry or eloquence does exist in young minds, before the subjects of either can be comprehended, may sometimes be observed. The writer has seen a boy of seven years listen to the pages of Burke with fixed and delighted attention, and has known a little girl, four years younger, as much excited and gratified by the reading of fine poetry—yet in both instances it was not a genuine comprehension of beauty, but an influence of sympathetic affection. A parent's tastes, and animated pleasure, imparted this lively interest to the full-toned periods of the orator, and the magic numbers of the poet--and these early indications of taste and enthusiasm are rare. The greater part of young persons do not love literature, because they do not understand it—do not begin at the beginning. In our common schools we make our children read disputes upon the comparative excellence of Reason and Revelation,* and require them to recite Pope's Messiah, the Dialogue between Brutus and Cassius, and a multitude more of difficult passages from the poets. I never knew a boy who could explain the first lines of the Messiah, or who could tell the matter of dispute between the complotters of Cæsar's death—and only because boys are not instructed in elementary facts in relation in those pieces, or any others of this character. How repugnant this mode of cultivating literary taste is to some highly endowed minds, is happily expressed by one whose memory, and whose genius in its creations, will endure for ever.
* See English Reader, Dialogue between Lock and Bayle.
The drilled dull lessons, forced down word by word
Aught that recalls the daily drug which turned
My mind to meditate what then it learned,
If free to choose, I cannot now restore
In a note upon these lines this high authority expresses all that I would say upon this subject. "I wish," says Lord Byron, "to express that we become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty ; that we learn by rote before we can get by heart ; that the freshness is worn away, and the future pleasure and advantage deadened and destroyed, by the didactic anticipation, at an age when we can neither feel nor understand the compositions which it requires an acquaintance with life, as well as Latin and Greek, to relish, or to reason upon. For the same reason we never can be aware of the fulness of some of the finest
of Shakspeare, ('To be or not to be,' for instance, from the habit of having them hammered into us at eight years old, as an exercise, not of mind but memory: so that when we are old enough to enjoy them, the taste is gone, and the appetite palled. In some parts of the Continent, young persons are taught from more common authors, and do not read the best classics till their maturity."
In conformity to these views, and my own experience in relation to education, I have endeavoured to prepare a school-book; and in order to compose it, I resorted to the purest fountains of English verse, and took what I found suitable to
I left the more elevated and sublime portions of the poets who supplied me, and appropriated to my selection such passages only as I believed would, with a little exposition, be useful and agreeable to young readers. As a bird does not lead her newfledged offspring to the skies in her first flight with them, so I would dictate short excursions to the unformed faculties of the human mind, that young readers, feeling their own power and felicity as they proceed, may at length be able and willing, without assistance, to ascend“ the brightest heaven of invention."
In the modes of education in present fashion, civil and political history is presented to young minds at an early period of study, but literary history—the peaceful influence of mind upon mind—is wholly neglected; and those who are initiated in the most remarkable passages
of Shakspeare, Milton, and other great authors, are taught nothing at school of these memorable men and their contemporaries. It is a debt which posterity owes to genius, to attach the memory of the man to his works, and to keep him and his contemporaries in the view of succeeding ages. I had only sufficient space simply to introduce authors and their relations to contemporary society, but I intended to suggest this relation, to awaken inquiry, to give my readers some acquaintance with the history of English poets and poetry, and also to show them the relations of English poetry to the rest of their intellectual pursuits. I hope my purpose will be effected, and that Poetry for Schools will be acceptable to teachers and pupils.
The preceding remarks were introductory to the former editions of this book, but they are as applicable to the education of the present as to any that of former time.
New-York, July, 1842.