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TO ETON

FROM

AN OLD ETONIAN

PREFACE

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I CAME the other day upon a volume of poetry, the gift, as the inscription ran, of an Eton tutor to a pupil' who was fond of poetry, and was expected to gain some wisdom from this, the best kind of reading. There are not many things one would sooner hear a boy, in whom one was interested, praised for than a love of poetry; though one would wish also, of course, that he should find from his reading so much at least of wisdom as, with honest Dogberry, to 'give God thanks and make no boast of it. But as I wondered, for I had known something of the boy, whether the promise thus foreshadowed had been or was ever to be realised, I began to ask myself why it was that this fondness for poetry should be so rare a quality in boyhood as to deserve this particular record. Let me here be permitted to waive the possibility,—the probability, if my reader pleases—that in this quality the tutor found the only occasion for the meed of praise which his good nature prompted him to bestow on a departing pupil. I could not, then, but ask myself whence it comes that by so many boys, not otherwise unintelligent nor averse to books, the reading of English poetry is regarded rather as a task than a pleasure ; a task less irksome, to be sure, from the more familiar form of the language, than their more orthodox studies of the Greek and Latin writers, but, none the less surely, a task. I suppose this is so; at least one continually hears it said, and what one continually hears said must count, of course, for something ; not for so much, perhaps, as many of us are apt to think, but no doubt for something

But are we then to lay the blame for this wholly on the emptiness or indolence of boyish minds? Might we not refer it a little also to the form in which poetry is too commonly offered or prescribed to them? Take, for example, the custom, familiar doubtless to so many of us, which insists that some breach of school discipline, not grave enough for the last penalty, shall be repaired by transcribing long passages from Paradise Lost. Is this, I would ask,—would ask indeed

With 'bated breath, and whisp'ring humbleness, for far be it from me to dash violently against the seat of order-is this the way to endear the name of Milton to boys, or induce them to search for pleasure those pages which have cost them, however justly, so many hours of playtime? Offences will come, no doubt, and must be punished, certainly ; but could not some other means of punishment be devised, not less effectual, and, if I may be permitted the expression, more legitimate ; means recognised and allowed by the offenders themselves to exist as 'instruments to plague them'? The Furies of the old world were no fair and loveable creatures, but hateful and odious to look upon, as well as strong and terrible to punish. The associations of boyhood last long, nor is it every one who has the candour to say with Byron,

Then farewell Horace whom I hated so,
Not for thy faults, but mine.

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Again, the compulsory learning of a speech from Shakespeare, a passage from Childe Harold or Marmion, is hardly, I would submit, the way with most boys to open their young minds to the true beauty and usefulness of poetry, for the simple reason, unworthy as that reason may be, that it is compulsory. It may be said, of course, that with the majority of boys compulsion is the only method of directing them to such studies. If this be so,and I cannot think that it is, to the extent that is commonly supposed—then were it not perhaps as well to let these studies be, to let compulsion be exercised only on such subjects as are all agreed to consider necessary and indispensable civilisers of the young idea ? As an exercise of memory such a course of study is no doubt very wholesome ; and certainly it is better that the memory should be exercised by beautiful and noble means than by common ones or worthless. But as certainly, save in very exceptional cases, the poetry suffers ; the poetic patrimony of the human race, to borrow M. Scherer's fine phrase, is degraded to a mere 'schoolboy's tale,' not the wonder, but the tediousness, the drudgery of an hour. There are exceptions, of course. Some boys, no doubt, there are who have, as one may say, been 'cradled into poetry by wrong,' have survived the grim ordeal,

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