• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

How to read your way out of a crisis

Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian‘s chief arts writer* picks her comfort reads.

* author too of the new Latin Love Lessons: Put a Little Ovid in Your Life

“Deep, recurring human truths”

Reading through The Guardian online last week I came across the news that UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, an atheist (and also one of the directors of The Poetry Archive), has “called for an overhaul of the school curriculum to reverse the ‘depressing’ trend which threatened to leave future generations unable to fully understand the works of Milton and Shakespeare or even more recent writers such as TS Eliot”:

Mr Motion, who holds a chair in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that he had struggled to teach Milton’s Paradise Lost to undergraduates because they had no concept of the fall of man.

“These were all bright students, very hard-working, all with good A-levels, but their knowledge of the great ancient stories was very sketchy,” he said in an interview.

“So when the time came to talk about Milton, I found very few knew there had been a civil war. As for the Bible, forget it, they just about knew who Adam and Eve were.”

He insisted that while secularist ideas had put many people off studying the Bible, parents who do not believe in God should have nothing to fear from their children learning about the Bible.

“If people say this is about ramming religion down people’s throats, they aren’t thinking about it hard enough,” he said.

“It is more about the power of these words to connect with deep, recurring human truths, and also the story of the influence of that language and those stories.”

And he warned that growing ignorance of the great stories of the Bible as well as classical mythology was becoming an increasingly serious handicap for those studying literature.

“Many of my students stumble into vaguely mythological stories in their writing,” he said.

Read the rest of the article here.

Here’s the perfect example of what you can do with a little book learning, not to mention a great deal of craft and patience: retired farmer Alec Garrard’s 12′ by 20′ model of  Herod’s Temple; as Mr. Garrard notes, “I have an interest in buildings and religion so I thought maybe I could combine the two and I came up with the idea of doing the temple”.  A detailed slide show of the model is here.

*  *  *

Polymath Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Historical Look at the Old and New Testaments

The Bible: A Biography, Islam: A Short History, and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong

Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible by Joseph Telushkin

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero

World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained by John Bowker (DK Publishing)

The Bible Literacy Project

Darwin 200: Day 5: Poetry Friday

A twofer, featuring excerpts from an 1802 poem by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin; his last work, the volume was published posthumously. You can find the entire work here.

The Temple of Nature:
Or, The Origin of Society:

A Poem, with Philosophical Notes

by Erasmus Darwin

Canto I
Production of Life

I. BY firm immutable immortal laws
Impress’d on Nature by the GREAT FIRST CAUSE,
Say, MUSE! how rose from elemental strife
Organic forms, and kindled into life;
How Love and Sympathy with potent charm
Warm the cold heart, the lifted hand disarm;
Allure with pleasures, and alarm with pains,
And bind Society in golden chains. …

V. “ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves21
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
{27} First forms minute22, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume; 300
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

“Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
Which bears Britannia’s thunders on the flood;
The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,
The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain,
The Eagle soaring in the realms of air,
Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare,
Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

“Now in vast shoals beneath the brineless tide,
On earth’s firm crust testaceous tribes reside;
Age after age expands the peopled plain,
The tenants perish, but their cells remain;
Whence coral walls and sparry hills ascend
From pole to pole, and round the line extend.

Read the rest here, if you have the time.

*  *  *

And something charming I came across for the younger set, thanks to The Ethical Palaentologist, from a 1980 book called Hocus Pocus Diplodocus: The Entire History of the Universe in 21 Poems by Tom Stanier:

Mister Darwin wrote a book
(The Origin of Species).
Let us look at life, he said,
In all its bits and pieces.

Find the rest of the poem here.

*  *  *

Darwin’s Ark: Poems by Philip Appleman, illustrations by Rudy Pozzatti (Indiana University Press, 2008); this is a new paperback edition (originally published in 1984) with prints by Rudy Pozzatti.  Stephen Jay Gould says of the book, “Philip Appleman has captured the elusive themes of Darwin’s worldview and translated them into items of beauty that also provoke thought.”  Prof. Appleman has also written novels, including Apes and Angels, and is the editor of the Norton critical edition of Darwin, first published in 1970 and considered by Dr. Gould to be “The best Darwin anthology on the market”.
*  *  *

Finally, the poet Ruth Padel has just published a biography about her great-great grandfather, Darwin: A Life in Poems (in the UK, Chatto & Windus, February 5, 2009; in the US and Canada, Knopf, late March or early April 2009, and the Chatto & Windus edition with the nicer cover should be available in Canada as well).

You can recent reviews at the Financial Times (“an imaginative and dynamic response to a man who changed the way we understand ourselves”) and  The Economist:

As the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12th approaches, it is good to welcome a biography which is relatively small, but in no way superficial or scanty. Ruth Padel has achieved this feat by writing her great-great-grandfather’s life in a sequence of often quite short poems. Through her verses she seeks to capture the “voice” of Darwin, thus performing a difficult act of literary ventriloquism. Ms Padel, who often writes about animals, embeds many of Darwin’s own words—from his books or his letters—in her poems, and the results tend to give the sense of being jointly authored. Sometimes she shapes entire gobbets of quotation into her own poetic passages. If this seems to be a bit of sly plagiarism, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels more like a deft act of collaboration between the living and the dead, one melding easily with the other. …

And why are poems a good way of illuminating a life such as Darwin’s? The best lyric poems—think of Keats or Shelley, for example—are moments of epiphany, a sudden opening out onto magic casements. And Darwin, throughout, was in the grip of something very similar: a terrible, destabilising sense of wonder. He sensed intimations of the marvellous everywhere he looked. All the sadder then—and this is something that Ms Padel does not explain—that, later in life, the man who carried with him on the Beagle a copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”* found that he could no longer enjoy poetry.

By the way, as part of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith” program, “Evolution and Wonder: Understanding Charles Darwin”, you can listen to a discussion of Darwin’s fondness for Milton’s poem and his description of the Atlantic Ocean.

*  *  *

Kelly Herold, who established Poetry Friday, is hosting today, so head over to her blog, Big A little a, for the complete round-up.  Thanks for hosting, Kelly, and thanks especially for Poetry Fridays.

Discover books and read, and learn, forever

Last month historian David McCullough addressed graduates at Boston College’s 132nd commencement.  You can watch a video of the speech or read the text.

I had a hard time excerpting because I found so much it tremendously worthwhile and inspiring, so here is a good deal of Mr. McCullough’s speech, “The Love of Learning” (links and emphases mine, as always):

It’s said ad infinitum: ours is the Information Age. There’s never been anything like it since the dawn of creation. We glory in the Information Highway as other eras gloried in railroads. Information for all! Information night and day!

A column of air a mile square, starting 50 feet from the ground and extending to 14,000 feet contains an average of 25,000,000 insects…. James Madison weighed less than a hundred pounds, William Howard Taft, 332 pounds, a presidential record…. According to the World Almanac, the length of the index finger on the Statue of Liberty is 8 feet.. .. The elevation of the highest mountain in Massachusetts, Mount Greylock, is 3,487 feet…. The most ancient living tree in America, a bristlecone pine in California, is 4,700 years old…

Information is useful. Information is often highly interesting. Information has value, sometimes great value. The right bit of information at the opportune moment can be worth a fortune. Information can save time and effort. Information can save your life. The value of information, facts, figures, and the like, depends on what we make of it — on judgment.

But information, let us be clear, isn’t learning. Information isn’t poetry. Or art. Or Gershwin or the Shaw Memorial. Or faith. It isn’t wisdom. Facts alone are never enough. Facts rarely if ever have any soul. In writing or trying to understand history one may have all manner of “data”, and miss the point. One can have all the facts and miss the truth. It can be like the old piano teacher’s lament to her student, “I hear all the notes, but I hear no music.”

If information were learning, you could memorize the World Almanac and call yourself educated. If you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird!

Learning is not to be found on a printout. It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books. And from teachers, and the more learned and empathetic the better. And from work, concentrated work. Abigail Adams put it perfectly more than 200 years ago: “Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” Ardor, to my mind, is the key word.

For many of you of the graduating class, the love of learning has already taken hold. For others it often happens later and often by surprise, as history has shown time and again. That’s part of the magic.

Consider the example of Charles Sumner, the great Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, whose statue stands in the Boston Public Garden facing Boylston Street. As a boy in school Charles Sumner had shown no particular promise. Nor did he distinguish himself as an undergraduate at Harvard. He did love reading, however, and by the time he finished law school, something overcame him. Passionate to know more, learn more, he put aside the beginnings of a law practice and sailed for France on his own and on borrowed money, in order to attend lectures at the Sorbonne. It was a noble adventure in independent scholarship, if ever there was. Everything was of interest to him. He attended lectures on natural history, geology, Egyptology, criminal law, the history of philosophy, and pursued a schedule of classical studies that would have gladdened the heart of the legendary Father Thayer of Boston College. He attended lectures at the Paris medical schools. He went to the opera, the theater, the Louvre, all the while pouring out his excitement in the pages of his journal and in long letters home. Trying to express what he felt on seeing the works of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre, he wrote, “They touched my mind, untutored as it is, like a rich strain of music.”

But there was more. Something else touched him deeply. At lectures at the Sorbonne he had observed how black students were perfectly at ease with and well received by the other students. The color of one’s skin seemed to make no difference. Sumner was pleased to see this, though at first it struck him as strange. But then he thought, as he wrote, that maybe the “distance” between blacks and whites at home was something white Americans had been taught and that “does not exist in the nature of things.”

And therein was the seed from which would later arise, in the 1850’s, before the Civil War, Charles Sumner’s strident stand on the floor of the United States Senate against the spread of slavery. From his quest for learning he brought home a personal revelation he had not anticipated and it changed history.

But perhaps, overall, John Adams is as shining an example of the transforming miracle of education as we have. John Adams came from the humblest of beginnings. His father was a plain Braintree farmer and shoemaker. His mother was almost certainly illiterate. Because a scholarship made possible a college education, the boy discovered books. “I discovered books and read forever,” he later wrote and it was hardly an exaggeration. At age 80, we know, he was happily embarking on a 16-volume history of France. When I set out to write the life of John Adams, I wanted not only to read what he and Abigail wrote, but to read as much as possible of what they read. We’re all what we read to a very considerable degree. So there I was past age 60 taking up once again, for the first time since high school and college English classes, the essays of Samuel Johnson and works of Pope, Swift, and Laurence Sterne. I read Samuel Richardson’s Clarisa, which was Abigail’s favorite novel; and Cervantes — Don Quixote — for the first time in my life. What a joy! Cervantes is part of us, whether we know it or not. Declare you’re in a pickle; talk of birds of a feather flocking together; vow to turn over a new leaf; give the devil his due, or insist that mum’s the word, and you’re quoting Cervantes every time.

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Adams late in life, knowing Adams would understand perfectly. Adams read everything — Shakespeare and the Bible over and over, and the Psalms especially. He read poetry, fiction, history. Always carry a book with you on your travels he advised his son, John Quincy. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

In a single year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, among all Americans with a college education, fully a third read not one novel or short story or poem. Don’t be one of those, you of the Class of 2008.

Make the love of learning central to your life. What a difference it can mean. If your experience is anything like mine, the books that will mean the most to you, books that will change your life, are still to come. And remember, as someone said, even the oldest book is brand new for the reader who opens it for the first time.

You have had the great privilege ofattending one of the finest colleges in the nation, where dedication to classical learning and to the arts and sciences has long been manifest. If what you have learned here makes you want to learn more, well, that’s the point.

Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history ofscience and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure, to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first-rate murder mystery. But take seriously — read closely — books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again. Make use of the public libraries. Start your own personal library and see it grow. Talk about the books you’re reading. Ask others what they’re reading. You’ll learn a lot.

And please, please, do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation. I’m talking about the relentless, wearisome use of the words, “like,” and “you know,” and “awesome,” and “actually.” Listen to yourselves as you speak.  Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, “Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually.”

The energetic part so many of you are playing in this year’s presidential race is marvelous. Keep at it, down to the wire. Keep that idealism alive. Make a difference. Set an example for all of us.

Go out and get the best jobs you can and go to work with spirit. Don’t get discouraged. And don’t work just for money. Choose work you believe in, work you enjoy. Money enough will follow. Believe me, there’s nothing like turning to every day to do work you love.

Walk with your heads up. And remember, honesty is the best policy; and yes that, too, is from Cervantes. Travel as much as you can, and wherever you go, before checking out of a hotel or motel, always remember to tip the maid.

My warmest congratulations. In the words of the immortal Jonathan Swift, “May you live all the days of your life.” On we go.

See?  I told you so.

More McCullough:

John Adams (the HBO miniseries is now on DVD)

1776 (and also the illustrated version, apparently one copy still available at BookCloseouts)

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt (11 copies at BookCloseouts)

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Johnstown Flood

Truman

Farm School posts: “Education Truly Begins at Home” and Teaching, and learning, history with passion

The Archimedes Project

From the article, “The Ancient Mechanics and How They Thought” by Guy Gugliotta, in today’s New York Times, combining several of our favorite subjects:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Consider the galley slave, clad in rags, chained to a hardwood bench and clinging to an oar as long as a three-story flagpole. A burly man with a whip walks back and forth shouting encouragement. You’ve seen the movie.

That galley slave would have known that the rowing stations in the middle of the ship were best, although he might not have known why. That took scholars to figure out. “Think of the oar as a lever,” Prof. Mark Schiefsky of the Harvard classics department said. “Think of the oarlock as a fulcrum, and think of the sea as the weight.”

The longer the lever arm on the rower’s side of the fulcrum, the easier to move the weight. In the middle of the ship, as the rowers knew, the distance from hands to oarlock was longest.

This explanation is given in Problem 4 of the classical Greek treatise “Mechanical Problems,” from the third century B.C., the first known text on the science of mechanics and the first to explain how a lever works. It preceded, by at least a generation, Archimedes’ “On the Equilibrium of Plane Figures,” which presented the first formal proof of the law of the lever.

Dr. Schiefsky teaches Greek and Latin as his day job and reads Thucydides and Sophocles in ancient Greek for fun. He also majored in astronomy as an undergraduate, and about nine years ago, feeling science-deprived, he joined a multinational research endeavor called the Archimedes Project, based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

The Archimedes team studies the history of mechanics, how people thought about simple machines like the lever, the wheel and axle, the balance, the pulley, the wedge and the screw and how they turned their thoughts into theories and principles.

The textual record begins with “Mechanical Problems,” moves to Rome and then through the medieval Islamic world to the Renaissance. It ends, finally, with Newton, who described many of the basic laws of mechanics in the 18th century.

There are a surprising number of old, and extremely old, scientific texts that have survived the ravages of time in one form or another. The Archimedes Web site lists far more than 100, including Euclid’s geometry, Hero of Alexandria’s Roman-era technical manual on crossbows and catapults, medieval treatises on algebra and mechanics by Jordanus de Nemore and Galileo’s 17th-century defense of a heliocentric solar system.

The nice thing for Dr. Schiefsky is that hardly anyone reads the stuff. Scientists generally are not into ancient Greek or Latin, let alone Arabic, and most of Dr. Schiefsky’s colleagues work on literature, philosophy, philology or archaeology. In fact, Dr. Schiefsky suggests “about 100 people” worldwide work on both science and the classics.

By following the historical record, the Archimedes researchers have discovered that the evolution of physics — or, at least, mechanics — is based on an interplay between practice and theory. The practical use comes first, theory second. Artisans build machines and use them but do not think about why they work. Theorists explain the machines and then derive principles that can be used to construct more complex machines.

The Archimedes researchers say that by studying this dialectic they can better understand what people knew about the natural world at a given time and how that knowledge may have affected their lives. …

I don’t know if the print edition of The Times gave any links, but the online edition didn’t, so here goes:

The Archimedes Project

(Must run. Calves are popping out like popcorn today, and we’re supposed to be attending a play tonight. Ha!)

Robert Fagles (1933-2008)

From Chris Hedges‘s article in The New York Times, “A Bridge Between the Classics and the Masses”, April 13, 2004:

On his deathbed, the Roman poet Virgil asked that the manuscript of his greatest work, The Aeneid, be destroyed. It was, after a decade of writing, still flawed. And perhaps, as some have suggested, this gentle man, who knew much of human suffering and pain, struggled with his glorification of empire and the reigning Roman imperial house.

These themes of empire and death, of human tragedy, of the pain of duty and the loss of love and the horror of war, have consumed one Virgil translator, Dr. Robert Fagles, for nearly as long as it took Virgil to write the epic poem. Dr. Fagles has worked day after day, month after month, and now, year after year since beginning his work in 1997, in a window-lined room in his house on a back road here.

He struggles to take the highly inflected Latin and render it in English, to make sure Virgil’s deep pessimism, his doubts, disappointments and understanding of our incompleteness are passed on to a new generation of readers.

His translation, nearly complete [now complete, and only just in paperback, but spring for the hardcover], follows his versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles and The Oresteia by Aeschylus, all published by Penguin Books. These translations of ancient Greek classics have sold some two million copies.

”There are many readers who hunger for substance,” Dr. Fagles said. ”I do not despair. I know they are out there, and I hear from them often.”

On his desk was an open copy of Virgil in Latin, sheets of paper and Dr. Fagles’s printed manuscript. He works about four or five hours a day.

The Aeneid is a cautionary tale,” he said. ”It is one we need to read today. It speaks of the terrible price of victory in war, for Virgil knew that victory is finally impossible, that it always lies out of reach. He saw the unforeseen aftermath, the way war could all go wrong whether from poor planning or because of the gods on high. He knew the sheer accumulation of death, the destruction, the pain we inflict when we use force to create empire.”

Every age needs classics translated into the idiom of the moment. It gives the works new vitality, new meaning. It offers to the living a connection with those who went before, the accumulated wisdom of the past, a protection from a dangerous provincialism.

”In Virgil, as in Homer, you find great reservoirs of memory,” he said. ”You find the restorative power of love set against a world of violence. There is sadness in the poem. There are innumerable losses. War wages on too long. Nearly every book in The Aeneid ends with certain death. Aeneas reaches out to the ghosts of those he loved, always beyond his grasp.”

Read the rest here.

Beowulf: Everything really, really old is new again

Beowulf is back. Again. No, I’m not talking about the recent movie version, which came hard on the heels of the film Beowulf & Grendel (and its “making of” documentary, Wrath of Gods, which I’ve heard is supposed to be quite good).

I was reminded by Mary Lee‘s recent post of a few recent items I wanted to mention. Mary Lee at her blog A Year of Reading posted a review of the two recent children’s versions of the tale nominated for Cybils this year in the graphic novel category,

Beowulf Monster Slayer: A British Legend by Paul D. Storrie and Ron Randall (Lerner)

Beowulf, adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds (Candlewick Press), who has tackled Beowulf before in true comic format. Hinds, by the way, takes on Shakespeare next (here and here).

And last month at Geek Dad, Michael Harrison had a post, Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Beowulf?:

This weekend, my wife and I went to see the Robert Zemeckis-directed, Neil Gaiman/Roger Avary-scripted Beowulf film. Needless to say, we didn’t bring the kid along.But this got me thinking about ways to introduce the little guy to epic stories of ancient heroes. When I was a kid, I was all about Greek mythology, and I took my first baby steps through the lavishly illustrated pages of the glorious D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. What about something like that, but for Beowulf?

Michael’s suggestios include the new Gareth Hinds title, above, as well as Michael Morpurgo’s recent retelling (2006, Candlewick), illustrated by Michael Foreman; and also the cartoon Grendel Grendel Grendel, narrated by Peter Ustinov; Michael mentions a bootleg DVD and I see it’s also at Blockbuster online.

Other 2007 offerings for children:

Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford; this New York Times review from last June compares the Gareth Hinds, Rumford, and Morpurgo versions; and an interview with Hawaii author Rumford in The Honolulu Advertiser is here.

Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat, and Ashes, retold by Nicky Raven, and illustrated by John Howe; this one is Candlewick’s third entry (at least) on the subject, the selling point for this one being that John Howe was a lead artist for the Lord of the Rings movies.

Beowulf: Grendel the Ghastly, Book One by Michelle Szobody and Justin Gerard. From Portland Studios, which is new to me, and which has this interesting blog entry on the book, with references to G.K. Chesterton.

A special mention for one of my more favorite picture book retellings for younger children, the quite gentle The Hero Beowulf by Eric A. Kimmel, and illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005); and don’t forget that Dover has a coloring book of the tale, for drawing while listening along.

And, saving the best for last, Camille at Book Moot had a post not too long about the best way “to experience Beowulf” — via Benjamin Bagby, and the news that Bagby’s Beowulf, performed at Helsingborg, Sweden, is now on DVD; here too.

* * *

Updated to add: Monica at educating alice notes in the comments below, “I also did a post on this sometime back in which I provided a couple of links to articles that might be of interest, one by Morpurgo in the Guardian and the other comparing LOTR and Beowulf in Salon.” Thanks, Monica!

New to me

Sylvia’s Classical Bookworm blog, where the Sidebar Menu includes such tasty treats as “About the Great Books”, “Great Books Online”, “Great Publishers”, “Libraries”, “Reference”, “Reading Guides”, “Reading Groups”, “Book Arts”, “Illuminated Manuscripts”, “Appurtenances”, “Other Good Stuff”, “Art”, “Latin”, and “Just for Fun”. Worth noting that “Appurtenances” includes a link to the Antioch Bookplate Company, whose bookplates have graced my books for more than 30 years and now grace my children’s.

Worth checking the archives for Sylvia’s first posts from December 2004.

More thoughts on The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems and classic poetry

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

Or what’s a poem for?

— from Stephen Fry‘s nifty Ode Less Traveled: Unlocking the Poet Within (original quote from Robert Browning)

On the heels of my guest review at Chicken Spaghetti of The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, I’m still agitating and cogitating about the book, a wonderful and luminous volume I thought — heck, my kids thought — was one of the best children’s poetry books of 2006 and yet failed to make it into the top five of the Cybils poetry titles. Go figure. I’m still trying.

In fact, for some time now I’ve been trying to figure out the current politics of poetry for children, which nowadays means that most folks aren’t interested, or think that children won’t be interested, in poems that aren’t “relevant”, “accessible”, or scatalogical. Admittedly, to many children and parents, the idea of poetry, especially the classic variety, is about as welcome as the thought of a plate full of broccoli (unless, of course, you figure that both are just an acquired taste, and the thing to do with your kids is to start acquiring those tastes while having fun, which isn’t particularly sneaky, mean, or difficult). And the fact that some of the poems and poets in The Barefoot Book aren’t usually found in children’s books, or that some of the authors could be considered “dead white males” will no doubt cause some parents, especially those who tend to underestimate the little dears and their abilities, to gnash their teeth and grumble.

But as I learned a few years ago during Laura’s brief foray into public education, just before we started home schooling, it’s a mistake and a terrible disservice to children to underestimate them, or to foist on them one’s own prejudices, against either Auden or eggs. I’ve long taken inspiration from the educational philosophy of Marva Collins, who believes that children are naturally ambitious and rise to a challenge; and I’ve been heartened recently to read both author Mitali Perkins’s fond remembrance of Wordsworth and my friend JoVE’s post on Accessible Poetry, about modern children and classic works. The vocabulary and exact meaning of some lines may not always be obvious to children, and yet the rhythm and poetry still speak to them. When children are older, they’ll already be familiar with some of the great writers and great books, greeting the original works as old friends rather than viewing them with fear or displeasure. And as adults, they’ll be able to join in the Great Conversation, as educational philosophers Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler called it, rather than just joining in the latest gossip. In a 1970 interview, Hutchins said,

[I]t seemed to me that the Great Books were the most promising avenue to liberal education if only because they are teacher-proof. If there were a Socrates behind every teacher’s desk, you would not need to worry about the curriculum. … I am sorry to repeat that the striking thing about young people today is that they are frightfully ignorant of the past. I don’t see how this can ever be an advantage. I understand the advantages of innocence but I do not understand the advantages of ignorance. … They are ignorant of the fact that there is a Great Conversation echoing back through history on the subject of justice. You are quite right that they are not ignorant in the sense that they do not lack information. They have more information than any previous generation, but having a great deal of information has little to do with knowledge. Knowledge is organized information, and an institution pursuing knowledge is not simply trying to hand out the latest dope on everything; it is trying to put this current information into a context of ideas that can be useful for analyzing the problems of daily life.

While some of my Cybils colleagues had concerns that the poetry in the book is too “old” to be suitable for kids, I tend to consider poems ageless, as I wrote in a post to the group. I don’t really think of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as children’s poets (I remember a surprising and glorious English class in 11th grade studying Alice) or “A Child’s Garden of Verses” as children’s poetry — the latter, in fact, seems to speak to me more now that I have children of my own — any more than I think of Yeats and Emerson as poets for adults. So I was happy to reread recently Harold Bloom’s introduction to his Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of Ages:

…I do not accept the category of “Children’s Literature,” which had some use and distinction a century ago, but now all too often is a mask for the dumbing-down that is destroying our literary culture. Most of what is commercially offered as children’s literature would be inadequate fare for any reader of any age at any time. I myself first read nearly everything I have gathered together in this book between the ages of five and fifteen, and I have gone on reading these stories and poems from fifteen to seventy. My title is meant to be precise: What is between these covers is for extremely intelligent children of all ages. Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear are blended with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nicolai Gogol, and Ivan Turgenev, because all of them — in the poems and stories I have chosen — make themselves open to authentic readers of any age. There is nothing here that is difficult or obscure, nothing that will not both illuminate and entertain. If anyone finds a work here that does not yield immediately to their understanding, I would urge them to persevere. It is by extending oneself, by exercising some capacity previously unused that you come to a better knowledge of your own potential [emphasis mine].

As I wrote in our panel discussions, and I have a feeling my impassioned pleas for The Barefoot Book went well beyond mere discussion (though my fellow panelists are a forgiving bunch), I’m not quite sure when “classic” became a pejorative term or started to mean only heavy, serious, somber works. I’ve always understood the word to mean something — whether art, music, movies, or literature — that has stood the test of time and avoided the faddish, and informed an understanding of the human condition, and children are very, very human. The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems is genuinely a book to grow with, with a wide range of poetry and a variety of voices to appeal to children of all ages, abilities and interests, the sort of book a son or daughter might take along when it’s time to leave home, not just because it contains sentimental old favorites from childhood, but because the poems in the book still have things to say, and explain, to the reader. Carol Ann Duffy, one of England’s most popular living poets, writes in her introduction to the anthology, “The poems here are ‘classic’ because, although their authors are no longer living, they continue to shine brightly in the English language — true stars. … Poetry, of all the arts, offers us moments in language that preserve or celebrate, explore or elegize, transform or enhance our human joys and sadnesses.”

Her words remind me of William Faulkner’s when he collected his Nobel Prize for literature: “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Which is why I think there must be room for classic poetry, especially glorious collections like The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, in the lives of children, too. Especially in the lives of children. But do them a favor. Don’t just give them the book. Sit down and read it to them, with them, and let them read aloud to you and each other, too. That’s how classic poetry lovers, and sometimes even poets, are born.