Poetry's 'Formative Power': Teaching Poetry in Tasmania 1900-1950

By Spaulding, Ralph | Australian Literary Studies, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Poetry's 'Formative Power': Teaching Poetry in Tasmania 1900-1950


Spaulding, Ralph, Australian Literary Studies


Poetry has always featured in formal learning programs, but both its function and importance have varied over time according to political and social needs. In his analysis of texts used in the teaching of English from the sixteenth century to 1870, Ian Michael illustrates the different functions poetry served during this period. These ranged from teaching skills--such as grammar, spelling, vocabulary, elocution, rhetoric and composition--to the more elevated aims of fostering Christian beliefs, moral and social values, and particular standards of personal behaviour. When compulsory education was introduced in the nineteenth century poetry met many of these needs, but educators were particularly diligent in describing poetry's power to instil virtue and faith in the young. In this period more liberal approaches to education evolved, underpinned by what Ian Reid calls 'Romantic ideologies' (22). In 1880, Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry was 'capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which men have assigned to it hitherto', believing that '[m]ore and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us' ('The Study of Poetry' 171). In his Report for the same year, Arnold, then an inspector, wrote that the 'acquisition of good poetry is a discipline which works deeper than any other discipline in our schools':

   Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character;
   it tends to beget a love of beauty and truth in alliance together,
   it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles of
   action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles
   operative. Hence its extreme importance to all of us; but in our
   elementary schools its importance seems to me to be at present
   quite extraordinary. ('General Report' 1880, 200-1)

Romantic ideologies had no impact on elementary education in nineteenth-century Tasmania, when the need to teach basic literacy, improve school attendance, provide school buildings and appoint teachers was paramount. In 1839 when the Governor, Sir John Franklin, established a Board of Education to control public elementary education in the colony, the main focus was on teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills and improving the moral tone of the populace by removing what an observer described as the 'evils resulting from ignorance and vice' (Austin and Sellick 16). For the rest of the century the most important teaching resources in Tasmanian elementary schools were the class readers, most of which were published in Britain and Ireland. Their contents determined the range and nature of poetry read in classrooms while their editors defined poetry's purpose and the manner in which it was to be taught. The Daily Lesson Books published by the British and Foreign School Society, for example, contained poetry 'calculated to improve the minds and characters of young persons, to promote the cultivation of a humble, contented and domestic spirit, and to lead to the more intelligent perusal of the sacred Scriptures' (Annual Report 1840, 5). The editors of readers published by the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland recommended that pupils 'be made to commit the best pieces of poetry to memory' and taught 'to read and repeat them with due attention to pronunciation, accent and emphasis' (Third Book of Lessons iii).

The subjects of poems that featured most frequently in the readers point to moral and social themes that were considered appropriate for young people: Longfellow's 'The Village Blacksmith' and Colley Cibber's 'The Blind Boy', for example, promoted the importance of Sunday worship, 'honest toil' and patient acceptance of adverse circumstances. Pupils' low literacy levels and the fact that poetry was primarily a resource for the reading lesson, and not taught as a discrete subject, suggest that most children did not have the ability or opportunity to read many of these poems.

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