Twenty Talks to Teachers

by Thomas E. Sanders

Chapter 18: Teaching Literature

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1908
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Sanders, T. E. (1908). Twenty Talks to Teachers. The Teachers Co–Operative Company.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 10.4
  • Word Count: 3,815
  • Genre: Informational
  • Keywords: education, educational, learning, teaching
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Literature, History, Algebra, Civil Government— these have been favorite subjects of mine. The teach ing of each has brought me pleasure. Perhaps literature in many schools is most neglected. I wish that I might say something which would call the attention of teachers to this subject. Let us discuss briefly the principles that should be made clear to the class and then apply these to that beautiful poem of Lowell's: "The Vision of Sir Launfal." This poem has been reprinted in numerous cheap editions, and no teacher but can afford a copy and secure a copy for each of his class.

The successful teacher of literature must believe in his subject. He must believe with his whole heart that to lead a pupil to the proper appreciation of a piece of pure literature is to place that pupil on a higher spiritual plane ; that it will lift that pupil above much that is low and groveling and vicious, and give to him a constant companion and monitor, which, like Copperfield's Agnes, always points upward.

The teacher of literature must have read critically much of the best literature. He must be especially familiar with the particular selections he is to teach. He must know the selection in its bearings. He must have studied it earnestly and critically, and in addition he must have planned how he can best present it to his class so that they may get most out of it. Less than this is apt to make the study of literature in the school a mere farce.

But what is pure literature? By what criterion do we draw the line between literature and other forms of writing? What distinguishes pure literature from the news article? What distinguishes literature from the statements of history or of scientific truths? I should reply that the constructive energy of pure literature is "universal, ideal, emotional life."

Pure literature must be universal.—Lowell tells us that a literary man cannot air his private liver complaint to the public. He also gives us his conception of literature in another place. "Literature that loses its mean ing, or the best part of it, when it gets beyond the parish steeple, is not what I understand by literature. To tell you when you cannot fully taste a book that it is because it is too thoroughly national, is to condemn the book. To say it of a poem is even worse, for it is to say that what should be true of the whole compass of human nature is true only to some north–and–by–half east point of it. I can understand the nationality of Firdusa when, looking sadly back to the former glories of his country, he tells us that 'the nightingale still sings old Persian.' I can understand the nationality of Burns when he turns his plow aside to spare the rough burr thistle, and hopes he may sing a song or two for dear old Scottie's sake. That sort of nationality belongs to a country of which we are all citizens—that country of the heart that has no boundaries laid down on the map."

Literature must be ideal.—The lessons it brings are the ideals of the soul's possibilities. It quickens in the individual soul the inspirations that are universal. The beautiful friendship of Damon and Pythias is above our selfishness—an ideal lifting us above ourselves, creating in us higher aspirations and showing us our own possibilities. There are, it is true, various degrees of idealizations. Heroism may be idealized and uplifting and yet not be to the degree of idealization in Enoch Arden. The strength and beauty of women's devotion may be worthy of emulation and yet not reach the standard of Evangeline.

Literature must be emotional.—It deals more with the heart than with the head. The emotions of literature are of various kinds, but these may be all summed up in the emotions of spiritual freedom. The soul is constantly struggling to free itself from bondage, and every time a limitation is removed the soul leaps with joy. In this lies much of the educative power of literature. The all–inclusive pleasure of literature is the soul's joy in its hopes and its possibilities of freedom. The reader, if he really reads, is forced to live for the time being at least the ideal life pictured in the literature, and thus from day to day his soul attains to higher levels.

The Vision of Sir Launfal.

Let us now discuss "The Vision of Sir Launfal." This is a work of literary art, a gem from a master, beautiful in conception, beautiful in execution, and beautiful in its inspiration to higher life. The teacher who secures the proper conception of this poem by the pupil rings a rising bell in the dormitory of that child's soul. Methods of teaching may vary with the personality of the teacher. The best method of one teacher may or may not be the best method of another. It is hoped the following suggestions may be helpful to some, and if so, they were not written in vain.

The following general suggestions may pave the way for a closer study :

1. Study the legend of the "Holy Grail" carefully.

2. In connection with the study of "The Vision of Sir Launfal" read Tennyson's "Holy Grail" and "Idyls of the King," noting likeness and difference.

3. Have pupils read through the poem carefully until they catch the movement and the rhythm. It is as great a mistake to set a class to criticising a poem or picking to pieces and analyzing the first paragraph of a selection of literature be fore they have read it as a whole as it would be to have them criticise a monument by having them examine one or two of the blocks of granite at the quarry.

4. Keep closely before the student the standard and tests of pure literature. The first step then in the study of "The Vision of Sir Launfal"—and the same would be true of any selection of literature—is to find the author's theme. The second step is to test this theme by the questions :

1. Is it universal?

2. Is it ideal ?

3. Is it emotional?

These tests will determine the class of literature to which it belongs.

The theme of literature is its soul or purpose, but this soul must have a body. The writer of literature does not speak in abstract terms. He embodies the forms in concrete, visible forms. The ideal image is presented in the real, the universal in the individual, and these objective or concrete particulars become types or symbols of the abstract or universal. Thus Hester in "The Scarlet Letter" and Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" are realizations of universal principles in human nature. The building and the launching of the ship with Longfellow is typical of national life. He who reads Evangeline and sees but Evangeline the individual loses most of the poem. Evangeline is the concrete individual form or embodiment of the abstract and the universal—woman's devotion. To see the universal symbolized by the particular, to see Evangeline no longer as an individual, but as a type—an ideal to which our souls may aspire—gives life to the study of literature and makes it a monitor to our own soul.

Language is the medium which carries the theme through the embodiment to the reader. In other forms of art, as in sculpture and painting, the embodiment stands alone and the reader must make out of it what he can. Literature, however, is more plastic. It may represent the change, the rate of progress or development. Language brings a vivid image before the mind, and may give the meaning of the image in terms of life. Literary language must be beautiful. Its interpretation must yield aesthetic pleasure; not only aesthetic pleasure, but sensuous pleasure also. It must caress the ear. These pleasing qualities give rise to euphony, harmony, rhythm, and rhyme in all its pleasing forms. It includes also alliteration and the balanced sentence. Language has both a form side and a sense side. It is the incarnation of thought, and the soul is indispensable to the body. Language also awakens sensuous pleasure by stimulating the imagination and the judgment. The connotation of language is often of more importance than the denotation.

Now let us apply these principles more in detail to "The Vision of Sir Launfal."

The Theme.

The theme of the poem is charity. The foundation of charity is our feeling of kinship. Blood kinship is a strong bond and has been in all of man's history. The recognition of spiritual kinship has grown out of blood kinship. The prejudice of the Greeks against the barbarian came from the denial of blood kinship, while they failed to recognize the higher spiritual kinship. For the same reason the Gentile and the Jew were enemies. Monotheism—one God, one Father of all—lies at the foundation of all true charity. No wonder the greatest of virtues is charity. It is

"That thread of the all–sustaining beauty, Which runs through all and doth all unite."

The theme of the poem is not apparent at first. The poet, like the organist, begins "doubtfully and far away." This stanza is typical of the universal method of thought. We approach the definite through the vague and the indefinite. The stanza has no connection with the theme of the poem. It is simply a prelude, and serves to prepare the mood of the reader for what follows.

In the second stanza the theme is the unconscious rising to higher life through the uplifting influences of nature about us—the winds, the mountains, the woods, and the sea.

The theme of the third stanza is the cost of earthly things contrasted with God's gifts. Earth gets its price ; it is only heaven can be had for the asking. The theme of the next stanza is the power of a June day unto righteousness. The general purpose of this beautiful description of a June day is to bring the reader to a realization of the uplifting influences about him. The particular purpose is to furnish the immediate connection with Sir Launfal, in whom from this time the theme is to be embodied. Mark the highly idealized upward impulse of a June day. Even the clod climbs upward to a soul in the grass and flowers.

The theme in Part I., except the last stanza, is selfishness—unconscious selfishness under the guise of a noble deed. The theme of the preceding is continued, and shows strongly by contrast the uncharitable element in Sir Launfal's character. His own life was so bright his heart could not be opened to the leper. Sorrow and re verses must touch him and melt his selfishness. Unlike the bird, there is no song of sympathy in the heart of Launfal, and like the castle he rebuffed the sunshine and gloomed apart. Everything up to this point is unified in the one idea of selfishness. The leper states this definitely. Heaven may be had for the asking, but we rebuff the gifts of heaven as the castle does the sun shine. Sir Launfal gives alms only; the gifts of true charity must come, from the heart. The knight rode to do a noble deed, but he could have found the Holy Grail at his own castle gate had his heart gone with his gift. He was seeking the husk instead of the grain. The crusaders sought Christ by going to Jerusalem, and many yet seek Him in the mere external ceremonies of the church. Notice how the leper contrasts this false charity with the real:

"But he who gives but a slender mite, And gives to that which is out of sight, That thread of the all–sustaining beauty, Which runs through all and doth all unite, The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms, The heart outstretches its eager palms, For a god goes with it and makes it store To the soul that was starving in darkness before."

Sir Launfal has realized the false charity; he is now to grow into the true; and that is the problem to be worked out in the life of each individual. It is the unceasing conflict between egoism and altruism, between the individual and the universal self. In this conflict there is a failure to recognize the self where the true self is found. Failing to see the divinity in things we fail to see ourselves in them.

In the prelude to Part II. we have the inner beauty of life set over against the external form. It requires the chilling influences of winter to awaken the soul of Sir Launfal to the realities of life, to enable him to recognize his kinship to the leper. His act was a small one; little in the eyes of the world. He gave but a) mouldy crust and a drink of water, but

"The Holy Supper is kept indeed In what we share with another's need ; Not what we give but what we share, For the gift without the giver is bare ; Who gives himself with his alms feeds three— Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me."

If the pupils do not realize the theme, if they do not see it as universal in time and place—as good to–day as in time of knighthood, and as applicable to one individual as another—they have lost the best, in fact all, of the good of the poem. If they really read the poem they must live for the time being decidedly above the ordinary level of charitable feeling.

The Embodiment. The theme is embodied in a person. Sir Launfal is not simply Sir Launfal the individual, but Sir Launfal the universal He is the potential of what you and I may become. We know nothing and care nothing about the ordinary events of his life. Even the most matter of–fact person cares nothing about when or where he was born. Age and clime do not concern us. We are interested only in his growth in charity. The embodiment is not Sir Launfal only, but Sir Launfal with all his accessories, the castle, the leper, summer, winter, etc. Sir Launfal before the castle gate, confronted by the leper, stands boldly out in the foreground of the picture in the beginning, and the scene must be shifted until he stands confronted by the leper again—from June to December of life—and Sir Launfal, and not the leper, must change.

The heavenly influences must bring knight and leper together so that each shall recognize their spiritual kin ship, and in the beginning they are the extremes of human life. The only ideal charity is the kind which has power to bring together the extremes of life, to show how the kinship in a person in the most abject and offensive condition of life. Sir Launfal is a knight, and the sworn duty of a knight is to do good to others and to protect and defend the weak. Here is the opportunity to do good to one who, needs help, but he fails utterly. He makes no sacrifice in giving gold; he does not share his life ; he gives the gold in scorn.

Sir Launfal, the proud, selfish knight, can never realize his kinship to the leper until his selfishness is over come, until his heart is changed. He is uncharitable to an ideal degree, and this is still more idealized when we consider that the June day which inspired Launfal to the keeping of his vow was a free gift. The poet describes the June day until the reader feels its power unto higher living. The physical and the spiritual are blended, and to such a degree is the spiritual idealized that the reader consciously feels the uplifting impulse. The class that does not feel this uplifting impulse does not really read the poem.

The June day is called a perfect day. It is a time when earth is in tune with higher life. Every clod feels a stir of might, and such an idealized effect on the clod makes the reader reach and tower to a higher life. But Sir Launfal's selfishness makes him out of harmony with nature all about him. The little bird, deluged with summer, sings to the world :

"His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings, And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings,"

but Sir Launfal's heart sings only to the wide world, if it sings at all. He does not respond to the quiet duty before him. Everything but Sir Launfal is upward striving; selfishness like a lodestone, is holding him down. At first it seems the poem lacks unity, but a careful study shows that the preludes have the closest relation to the theme. The uplifting influences of the free June day makes the selfishness of Sir Launfal all the greater.

The castle is the embodiment of Launfal and selfishness. It, too, was besieged by the summer, but "lay like an outpost of winter, dull and gray." The draw bridge dropped with a surly clang as the knight dashed forth, but the sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill as he beheld the leper. This picture is the embodiment of the emptiness of the outward forms of charity— the mere almsgiving. The picture of true charity is quite different. Sir Launfal and the leper meet again before the same castle wall and again the leper begs an alms. The chilling influences of life and the reverses of fortune have wrought a change in Sir Launfal, and he now listens to the "grewsome thing." He recognizes in him not only a kinship, but sees in him the image of Christ—the real Christ—while his life has been spent in seeking only the shadow of Christ. The external contrast is as great as the spiritual contrast. Sir Launfal is now an old, bent man. There is no sign of Knighthood—he is "shelterless, shelterless, shelterless."

The description of the little brook is, if possible, more delightful than that of the June day, and is the embodiment of Sir Launfal's present life. The reader feels the joy of the fullness of inner life independent of external circumstances. The warmth and comfort inside the castle is a striking contrast with the cold outside, and this expresses the condition of Sir Launfal. The inner life is now triumphant over the outer. Contrast the picture of Sir Launfal leaving the castle, and Sir Launfal returning to the castle. In the first the outward life is triumphant over the inner. The external world is light with warmth and cheer. In the second it is cold and bleak and gloomy, while the ruddy glow comes from within. This growth is typical of the progress of the soul from the pride of youth and inexperience to the joy of the inner spiritual life of old age. It suggests also the historical moment from external splendor of chivalrous deeds to inner Christlike charity ; the growth from symbolism to the thing symbolized.

The class should study the embodiment until they feel:

1. That the picture is accurate, vivid and full.

2. That it makes its appeal to the inner life of sympathy and love.

3. That there is perfect harmony between the real as presented in the picture and the ideal as potential in human nature.

The Language.

The pupils should scan the poem to catch the music of the verse. Notice the external mechanism, the language and its power to awaken aesthetic pleasure. Note the freedom and variety of the structure. There is no monotonous jingle. Rhythm is the primary element in poetic form, and a return to it. There must be no fixed regularity in the departure and the return. Notice the flexibility in the rhyme, as "knowing" "growing," "ear" "near," "flowing," "sky" "by," "back" "lack," "chanticleer" "year," "crowing."

The measure is as free and as playful as the rhyme. The iambic is the characteristic foot, but there is frequently variations by the use of the anapest. The trochaic foot is used occasionally at the beginning of the line. Notice the variations running through the poem and the variations in the length and structure of the stanzas. The more complex the movement of a poem, provided there is unity in it, the more music there is in it. Stanzas cut by the same form and pattern are artificial and mechanical.

The form of poetry, however, cannot be considered separate from the thought and sentiment expressed. Al literation, unless it fit the form to the idea, is mere affectation. When the sentiment rises and falls or moves with varying rapidity, the form of the stanza must vary. The class should study the poem to see :

1. If there is any conflict between the form and meaning.

2. If the variation in form comes naturally with the variation of the sentiment expressed.

Suggestion and allusion are well employed in the selections. The author utilizes the reader's knowledge of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," the Bible story of Moses and Sinai, Druid religion, and Tennyson's "Idyls of the King," and he does it skillfully. He does not thrust it at the reader, but assumes the reader's intelligence, and the compliment is pleasing. The poems are few where we find the objects presented so completely and transformed into spiritual types so perfectly. Even the clod climbs to a soul. Note the suggestiveness, the connotation, in "reaches" and "towers," "groping blindly" and "climbing." All of them suggestive of the human soul's ascent to higher things.

The poem is a unit. It is "universal, ideal, emotional." There is complete fusion of form and content, a rounded fullness, completeness and beauty which makes it a work of fine art. Do not let your class leave it until they have stored their minds with beautiful quotations—gems of thought and sentiment, jewels of expression— which will bless and brighten and uplift them in after years.