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A key element of classical education is literature, and no study of literature is complete without poetry.
I’m going to start by saying the same thing everyone’s been telling you all along… but for completely different reasons, so hear me out…
Poetry is important. (Yes, that’s actually true.)
And if you can be patient with yourself and stick with it for awhile, you’ll start to like it for yourself. (Yes, that’s actually true, too; seriously, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody!)
For 6,000 years, people have enjoyed poetry. Think about it—would The Odyssey and Hamlet and The Life of King Arthur and everything else have survived for centuries if the audiences of those times had said, That’s a poem? No, thanks!...? (Not that I’m recommending those books for our Christian children, but they make the point.)
Here’s the thing. The way we were taught poetry in our schooldays… we were robbed. The way they taught us about it, was as if the curriculum designers were intentionally trying to make sure young people couldn’t understand and wouldn’t like poetry. We never sat back and listened to good poems, like we listen to a good song. Instead, it was always an analytical exercise, like some weird math problem we couldn’t understand.
But how about this? What is it that you like about “In Christ Alone”? We all love that modern hymn, right? The music’s pretty good; I mean, it’s no “O Holy Night”, but it’s not bad. But if the music isn’t especially wonderful, why do we all love it so much?
In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song.
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease.
My comforter, my all in all;
Here, in the love of Christ, I stand.
There’s something wonderful about choosing just the right words to say something, and arranging them in an artful way, and then adding the lovely sounds of rhyme and rhythm to it all, that is uplifting to the soul.
And this is not some fleshly invention humans devised to satisfy our sinful cravings. In the Garden of Eden, the first recorded words spoken by Man—still in a state of sinless perfection—were poetry.
This now is bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh.
She shall be called woman,
Because she was taken out of the man.
It’s amazing to think that Adam, on his first day of life, was creating verse on the fly; God gives us that little glimpse into what Man was like before the Fall.
But it doesn’t stop there; you see poetry throughout the Bible. Jacob blesses his sons in poetry. Melchizedek blesses Abram in verse. The psalms are poetry; the proverbs are poetry. And the Lord himself uses poetry: God commands Abram to leave his father’s house and go to where the Lord would lead him in poetic form, for example. Several of the prophetic books are almost entirely written in verse.
But of course, outside of the Bible, there is a rich treasury of poetry to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of garbage out there, too, especially the stuff they made us study in high school. But there is a lot of beautiful poetry, and we’re missing something wonderful if we can’t enjoy or understand it. For example, if you want to read the original history of William Wallace and the battle for freedom in Scotland, it’s an epic poem. In The Lord of the Rings, at poignant moments, the men break into poetry, we shouldn’t trudge through those songs; we should think they’re some of the best parts. And of course, John Milton’s incomparable Paradise Lost is an epic poem. While we’re at it, these are manly works, so let’s tear down that straw man right here; poetry isn’t for girls! It’s a manly artform!
So… how did I go from mildly-skeptical-to-leery of poetry to being a full-fledged lover of it?
- I ditched the modern stuff. I find that most of the modern poetry, including the stuff we studied in school, is one of two types: 1.) Humanist and anti-God, or 2.) Written by the same guys who made the emperor’s new clothes, if you know what I mean (here’s an example).
- I ditched the children’s poetry. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of cute and sweet stuff out there, but you’re never going to get the same musical experience from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as you do from Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. Same thing here. Back when all I was reading to the children was A Child’s Garden of Verses, I was still wondering what the big deal was about poetry. If the only music I’d ever heard was “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Jingle Bells”, I wouldn’t be all that excited about music, either.
- I got a great volume and just started reading to the children every day.
Here’s what that looked like. I got the Arthur Quiller-Couch edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, and I just straight-out told the children, “We’re going to read a poem every day. And I don’t understand it very well, but we’re just going to keep reading it, and I figure, as we keep reading it, at some point we’ll start understanding it.”
I started at the beginning, which, in hindsight, may not have been the best idea, because it’s arranged in chronological order, and the first few are in Middle English, which actually qualifies as another language! But the glossary at the bottoms of the pages helped, and many times I would finish by telling the children, “I’m not sure what that meant…!?”
But we kept going. And three years later, I look find that Bunyan’s poems are my favorite parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress!
In a word, I started reading poetry on faith, and today I really understand and love it! So much so, that I encourage you to dig into it, too. I was missing something wonderful, all of the years when I thought poetry was difficult and unpleasant. (And, again, that may have been because the poetry I was assigned to study in high school was difficult and unpleasant!) My life is richer today for having added poetry to it, and I’m delighted to share this treasure with my children.
Here’s a taste, just to whet your appetite. It’s one of Bunyan’s gems in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Whilst Christian is among his godly friends,
Their golden mouths make him sufficient mends
For all his griefs, and when they let him go,
He’s clad with northern Steel from top to toe.
What a picture he paints, in so few words, of the blessings of godly fellowship!
Have you dipped your toe into the poetry waters yet? Do you have any favorites to share with us?
Thanks for dropping by; please keep us in prayer!