Ambleside Schools International Articles
A Poetry Lesson
relationship, n. the way in which two or more people are connected, or the
way they behave toward each other; the way in which things are connected
or work together1; late 14c. as “act of telling or relating in words,” from
If I had to describe Charlotte Mason and her philosophy of education in just one word, it would be ‘relationship.’ She is all about relationship:
Relationship with ideas
with science and mathematics
with poets and their poems
with composers and their music
with artists and their work
ultimately and miraculously,
these relationships are gained through connections and associations
with God Himself,
Through these many and varied relationships
spanning all earthly realms,
we come to know our Creator
And in our attending, we find His gifts to us:
Treasures of wonder, joy, beauty, and Light,
sorrow, mourning, mercy, and peace.
Charlotte Mason thought of poetry as “perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers;”
… to know about such a poet and his works may be interesting, as it is to know about
repoussé (hammered metal) work; but in the latter case we must know how to use
the tools before we get joy and service out of the art.
Poetry, too, supplies us with tools for the modelling of our lives,
and the use of these we must get at for ourselves.
The line that strikes us as we read, that recurs, that we murmur over at odd
moments — this is the line that influences our living, if it speak only —
“Of old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.” 3
A couplet such as this, though it appears to carry no moral weight, instructs our conscience more effectually than many wise saws (sayings). As we ‘inwardly digest,’ reverence comes to us unawares, gentleness, a wistful tenderness towards the past, a sense of continuance, and of a part to play that shall not be loud and discordant, but of a piece with the whole. This is one of the ‘lessons never learned in schools’ which comes to each of us only as we discover it for ourselves.
Many have a favourite poet for a year or two, to be discarded for another and another. Some are happy enough to find the poet of their lifetime in Spenser, Wordsworth, Browning, for example; but, whether it be for a year or a life, let us mark as we read, let us learn and inwardly digest. Note how good this last word is. What we digest we assimilate, take into ourselves, so that it is part and parcel of us, and no longer separable.4
The English writer, philosopher, and art critic John Ruskin, whom Charlotte Mason greatly admired and often quoted, also had his thoughts about poetry …
“It seems to me, and may seem to the reader, strange that we should need to ask the question, ‘What is poetry?’ Here is a word we have been using all our lives, and, I suppose, with a very distinct idea attached to it; and when I am now called upon to give a definition of this idea, I find myself at a pause … In general, people shelter themselves under metaphors, and while we hear poetry described as an utterance of the soul, an effusion of Divinity, or voice of nature, or in other terms equally elevated and obscure, we never attain anything like a definite explanation of the character which actually distinguishes it from prose. I come, after some embarrassment, to the conclusion that poetry is ‘the suggestion by the imagination of noble grounds for the noble emotions.’ …
I mean by the noble emotions those four principal sacred passions, Love, Veneration, Admiration, and Joy (this latter especially, if unselfish); and their opposites — Hatred, Indignation (or Scorn), Horror, and Grief — This last, when unselfish, becoming Compassion. These passions in their various combinations constitute what is called ‘poetical feeling’, when they are felt on noble grounds, that is, on great and true grounds. Indignation, for instance, is a poetical feeling, if excited by serious injury; but it is not a poetical feeling if entertained on being cheated out of a small sum of money. It is very possible the manner of the cheat may have been such as to justify considerable indignation; but the feeling is nevertheless not poetical unless the grounds of it be large as well as just.”5
As an Ambleside teacher, preparing and teaching a lesson is a lesson itself — a great adventure that takes the teacher on his or her own path of discovery. We search, we read, we consider, we ponder, we reflect, we gain insight … we’re inspired. In the preparing and planning we grow and learn ourselves. The text is the teacher, and the teacher is taught. And each subject has its own distinct path of learning.
With the mind contemplating these rich and wonderful ideas, the teacher sets her feet on the path to acquaint the students with a particular poet such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. She sets her task to engage imaginations with his work and seek those noble grounds for the noble emotions.
Born in 1844, Hopkins wrote poetry as a young schoolboy and into his school years at Oxford University. He entered the Jesuit Order to begin studies for the priesthood. As a Jesuit, he gave up writing poetry because he believed that writing poetry would distract him from his priestly life. Fortunately, his Jesuit superiors encouraged him, and he felt free again to continue to write his poetry.
The poet spent much time in nature where he could see and hear more clearly without worldly interruptions. As he walked, his mind relaxed, and he received the messages in the trees and the birds and the sky and the earth. He kept a ‘notebook.’ He was ever watching. He took notice and cared. He had a questioning mind — a mind that pursued knowledge and wondered. And he certainly stopped to smell the roses. In so doing the poet encountered the Wordsmith — the Author Himself — in His most vibrant awe-inspiring variations. He gained new eyes to see and new ears to hear because of this connection — this relationship.
On our quest to form a relationship with Hopkins through his works, we read some of his notebook entries — descriptive phrases and words, his notes for poetry and the first drafts of many verses.
These are just a few:
April 14. Moonlight hanging or dropping on treetops like blue cobweb … Also the upper sides of little grotted waves turned to the sky have soft pale-colored cobwebs on them, the under sides green.
Note that the beaded oar, dripping, powders or sows the smooth with dry silver drops.
Easter 1866. Drops of rain hanging on rails, etc. seen with only the lower rim lighted like nails (of fingers). Screws of brooks and twines. Soft chalky look with more shadowy middles of the globes of cloud on a night with a moon faint or concealed. Mealy clouds with a not brilliant moon. Blunt buds of the ash. Pencil buds of the beech. Lobes of the trees. Cups of the eyes. Gathering back the lightly hinged eyelids. Bows of the eyelids. Pencil of eyelashes. Eyelids like leaves, petals, caps, tufted hats, handkerchiefs, sleeves, gloves. Also of the bones sleeved in flesh. Vermilion look of the hand, held against a candle with the darker parts as the middles of the fingers and especially the knuckles covered with ash.
The wind, that passes by so fleet,
Runs his fingers through the wheat,
And leaves the blades, where’er he will veer.
Tingling between dusk and silver.
slippery slop, slabby (muddy), slidcy perhaps slope, but if slope
is thus connected what are we to say of slant?
The sparky air
Leaps up before my vision, — thou art gone.
Moonlight hanging or dropping on treetops like blue cobweb.
The students went home that day with the assignment to find a quiet space outdoors where they could sit and listen and see and reflect upon or ‘inwardly digest’ Hopkins’ notes and then to write their own. Here are just a few of these:
The rain falls heavily, splashing against my roof as a soft, rhythmic drumming. It fogs my window … fogging the window in a sparkling glistening wall. All is blurred, but in a shimmering, tranquil way. The lights in my room send beads of light sparkling around my room. A faint rainbow appears, basking over the grassy hill across the street. The clouds shift, and the rainbow vanishes. The sun peeks out between the clouds, and the raindrops sparkle like millions of diamonds.
* * * * *
The city is busy now that it is noon. Business meetings … people coming and going, towering like bees going in and out of their hive. All the store shops and bakeries are full of people. It is almost Christmas, so toy shops are busy, like in summer when many people go to the beach … all together. The city is asleep. It is 1:00 a.m.; but tomorrow is Christmas Eve. A very special day. They better get ready!
* * * * *
Water shimmers in sunlight. It comes in many different forms: liquid, ice, vapor. In its forms it displays beauty. The snow looks so pure. Vast oceans of water stretching over miles of sand glisten reflecting the sunlight. After the rain comes a rainbow reminding us of God’s promise to us. The steam coming off hot pavement rises slowly looking like waves on the ocean. The rain waters plants to help give life. Water cascading down waterfalls sounds like chimes or laughter from small children. Water cleans things making them fresh. It renews animals and humans alike with its fresh taste.
* * * * *
In listening to the students as they read their compositions the next day, the teacher recognized that a sacred transaction had taken place. The noble ideas of Love, Veneration, Admiration, and Joy had entered the minds of these children. Connections were made. Relationships formed. The next hope was that these would linger and become fortified in time. And Charlotte Mason encouraged us that this is so. One idea begets another and another … We must always consider what ideas we are taking in … What relationships are we forming?
By Shannon Seiberlich
1 Cambridge Dictionary, s.v. “relationship,” accessed April 4, 2023, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/relationship
2 Harper Douglas, “Etymology of relationship,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed April 4, 2023, https://www.etymonline.com/word/relationship.
3 William Wordsworth, “The Solitary Reaper,” Poetry Foundation, accessed April, 4, 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45554/the-solitary-reaper
4 Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, Book II (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989) 71.
5 Levi, Olma C. “Ruskin’s Thoughts on Poetry.” Source: The Sewanee Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct., 1923), pp. 426-445. The Johns Hopkins University Press, URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27533697.
6 Storey, Graham. “The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Oxford University Press, 1959, https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.460186/2015.460186.The-Journals_djvu.txt