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Historical Poems and Ballads

Historical Poems and Ballads –Their Abundance

A study of Charlotte Mason’s PNEU programs reveals that an abundance of historical poems and ballads are included in them. What is the significance of this?

The titles of books listed under Literature (Forms III and up) and under Reading are included in the programs, but sometimes there are only 1-2 specific titles for each of these categories. Yet, Shakespeare selections are always included and most often titles for historical poems and ballads are listed as well. We know that literature was included in the programs, but it is often hard to distinguish between those to be read aloud and those meant to be read independently. It is also difficult to discern which books from the literature and reading categories were read during lesson time and which were read during evening hours, holidays and Sundays. Why were poems and ballads deemed important enough to take the place of what could have been another literature book? Poetry read from anthologies and poet studies were already included in each term as well. Why were historical poems and ballads separated from this poetry reading?

It would be easy to suggest that perhaps these poems and ballads were included as a reflection of the limitations of literature during the time the PNEU programs were written or to assume that perhaps it was associated with the teaching approaches of that time. This way they could be excluded in any modern interpretation of a Charlotte Mason education. This would be a mistake.

It is important to remember that book lists are meant to be reflective of teaching methods, ideas and philosophies and, as such, are tools in which to implement them. Book lists are important and much can be learned by reading them, but they serve no purpose if they are not the pinnacle of an educational philosophy rather than the base of it. Curricula which first build their book lists and then attach teaching methods to them fail to understand some of the most fundamental ideas of education. Charlotte Mason developed her curriculum on a teaching philosophy and her book and poem suggestions are based on her principles. It is crucial to not remove what appears to be an important part of each program without first examining its relevance. Only after this examination can adjustments be made to her selections, perhaps replacing some of them and adding a few newer suggestions as well, thereby leaving the purpose of the poems and ballads in place, but yet modernizing them as needed.

Historical Poems and Ballads –Their Purposes

Historical poems and ballads were included in every term program, because they share connections with literature, citizenship and history, capture the imagination, show the beauty of words, build skills in recitation and train the ear and mind for higher ideas and language.

Charlotte Mason expected history and literature to be studied concurrently by Form II, linking literature selections, history readings and historical poems and ballad to the same time period. Charlotte Mason writes “Readings in literature, whether prose or poetry, should generally illustrate the historical period being studied” (Vol. 6). Reading about historical events or people from both a literary and historical perspective gives a more complete picture of what was happening in the past and how people truly felt about it. The literary side breathes more humanity into the historical side and the historical side keeps the truth in place, providing balance. Historical poems and ballads bring emotion to the story with their vivid verbs, imagery and exciting rhythm, giving a fuller picture; the poems are personalized and musical, capturing the ear and the attention of readers and better imprinting on their soul. Studying historical poems and ballads illustrate in words how poets of that time, and even of times just after, felt about the people and events of their time period. It helps move readers past the dates and facts and gives them a window in which to really “see” the life of that time.

In Towards a Philosophy of Education, Ms. Mason writes:

We study English history in every grade. But in the earliest years, it’s studied alone. We know from experience that it’s not always possible to get the perfect book, so we use the best one we can find and supplement it with the best literary essays from the historical period. Literature hardly even seems like a separate subject because it’s so closely associated with the term’s world or English history. It might be a first-hand document or a story to teach a little about the time period. It’s amazing how much actual knowledge children get when the thoughts and ideas from a time period are meshed with their study of the same time period’s political and social developments. I’d like to make a point about the way poetry helps us to understand the thoughts and ideas of a time period--including our own. Every age, every era, has its own poetry that captures the soul and spirit of the time. It’s a wonderful thing for a generation to have someone like Shakespeare, Dante, Milton or Burns to collect and preserve its essence as a gift for generations to come (Vol. 6).

Words can be beautiful and poetry is well-known for its ability to express this beauty; words-in all of their glory–can be few, many, vivid, impactful, precise, haunting and descriptive. Is there a more beautiful way to introduce children to the many arrangements and uses of words? Not only does reading poetry model this for them, but it also lays the foundation for writing poetry. Students can begin to experiment with their own arrangements of words and poems, finding yet another way to express themselves.

Charlotte Mason writes “He should have practice, too, in reading aloud, for the most part, in the books he is using for his term’s work. These should include a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honor; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance” (Vol. 1).

The above quote includes yet another purpose for the inclusion of historical poems and ballads-their role in building skills for recitation. First students hear poems read aloud beautifully and then they practice reciting them for themselves, sharing the beauty of poetry with others. Reciting poetry requires attention to the rhythm of the words as well as to words which should be accented. Some words should be spoken with a hushed reverence, some with firm resolve, some with intense energy and some with quiet love. These alterations in speech require first the attention of their meaning, building skills in distinguishing between them.

Like all poetry, historical poems and ballads, encourage imagination. The mind of the reader plays with the images, ideas and emotion evoked by the words, adding their own tangents to them, making them their own. Poetry, because its form and nature has a natural reduction in word count, has more interpretation space available to the reader. This space allows readers to connect emotionally to the words, since they can make it a reflection of their own thoughts and feelings. While history books will tell the stories, the historical poems and ballads will repeat the stories but from new angles and interpretations; this makes them highly relatable.

Literary skills are needed to make intelligent readers. These skills develop over time and give students the tools they need to later connect to more advanced works. Poetry’s use of rhythm, rhyme, imagery, figurative language, word choice and word arrangement gives practice in discernment to the ear and mind, preparing both for more complex language. In a Parents’ Review article, Ronald McNeill writes, “But give him Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake, and “The Revenge”, “The Relief of Lucknow”, and a little later Enoch Arden, The Idylls of the King, and Childe Harold. The fancy will be caught by the romance, the ear captivated by the rhyme and rhythm, the sense of fitness will gradually respond to the appropriateness of epithet and metaphor and imagery. Later on the attention will fasten on the curiosa felicitas of verbal nicety, and, as the mind and taste expand, the fitness of poetic expression and poetic method as a vehicle for high thought comes to be recognized” (“The Choice of Literature for the Young”).

Lastly, historical poems and ballads often elicit a sense of patriotism, stirring the reader’s emotions with such ideas as loyalty, freedom, duty, truth and honor. It would be important to include historical poems and ballads which are relevant to the student’s own country, requiring those who live in the United States, Canada, Australia or other countries outside of Great Britain to make some adjustments to those included in Charlotte Mason’s own selections.

Professor S. S. Laurie wrote a Parents’ Review article which expands on many of the above thoughts. Included below are excerpts from this article:

We must teach history to the young as an epic, a drama and a song. A certain number of dates connected with great crises of national history, or with great characters, must, of course, be known for the sake of the time-sequence, and certain prosaic facts must enter as connecting links of the epic, as the pupils increase in years. But the younger our pupils are, the more must the epic and dramatic and lyric idea of history be kept in view, and the more indifferent must we remain to causal explanations. Thus, the history of the school will be full of humanity, and so be a humane study; thus will it connect itself with literature; thus will it stir ethical emotion; thus, in short, will it be the true matter of history; and when history, in the larger philosophic conception of it, comes within the range of the cultured adult mind, this epic view of it will contribute to a true-reasoned comprehension--a comprehension, that is to say, which will take full account of human character, feeling, and motive.

History taught in accordance with this method shows itself to be, above all other studies, a humane study, and to be rich in all those elements which go to the ethical culture of the young. All subjects, when properly taught, contribute, it is true, to this ethical culture, for even science can be humanized; but language (in its larger significance) and history contribute most of all, and these two play into each other's hands. Together they constitute, along with morality and religion, the humanistic in education, and furnish the best instruments for the ethical growth of mind (“Instruction in History and Citizenship”).

The author continues with:

This is the epic: the dramatic and the lyrical enters by reading to him, or with him, all the national poetry and song that has gathered round the period. He then, as in other subject, is invited to express himself in the construction of a narrative of the leading events.

So in the history of England, the periods of the French wars and the Spanish Armada, for example, are to be treated in like manner. The boy must strike his roots deep into the national soil, or he will never come to much. It matters nothing that the poetry you give contains much that is legendary. A national legend is a far truer element in the inner history of a people than a bald fact (“Instruction in History and Citizenship”).

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