Some time in the past I was Chief Guest for the awards aspect of a poetry recitation contest for children. This was an endeavour I related to, because synchronized expression that promotes histrionic skills and furnishes the young with a preliminary acquaintance of literature is something to applaud. One couldn’t but be impressed with children tossing off the weightily lengthy like Matthew Arnold’s “ Sohrab and Rustum”. At the same time, it also made me sit up and question the values that some classic poems for younger children propagate.
The most famous of these is undoubtedly Felicia Hemans’ “Casabianca.” The boy on the burning deck was meant to be a beacon of inspiration- one that children were expected to look up to in a subtle message that advocated unflinching obedience to parents and elders. The poem begs the question as to how a boy could be on a battleship in the first place. Which parent would wilfully expose his child to the hazards of war? This was the French ship “Orient” during The Battle of the Nile in 1798 -a Napoleonic naval exercise which ought to have had its own protocols- was the man at the helm, Louis de Casabiaca disobeying them even as he demanded unquestioning conformity from his son? The boy was obedient to a fault, but both father and son in the poem apparently lacked common sense and foresight. Surely a contingency plan should have been in place if the father didn’t return as might be expected in a combat situation. Obedience may be an admired virtue, but prudence a necessity for personal safety. This poem to my mind should be more of a cautionary tale to parents than an aspiration for youthful greatness .
There’s Wordworth’s ‘Lucy Gray”, which again exalts a little girl who followed a father’s insensitive command to pick up a lantern and light her mother through the snow, meeting her own icily tragic end in this obedient quest. Another favourite is Charles Kingsley’s “ The Sands of Dee”, detailing the watery death of Mary who went to call the cattle home amidst the howling of the West wind and the rush of cruel foam. Both of them suggest societies of negligent parents, happily indolent as they palmed off the foolhardy to their young offspring, who did not possess the independent spirit to protest that unfairness.
The “ Cautionary Tales” of Hillaire Belloc are a child’s delight to recite, because they appear to convey absorbing stories of children consumed with pride, deceit and the like. But the punishment vastly exceeds the crime, if you can call it that- in most cases they are common human frailties and the penalty paid is extreme. Mathilda’s propensity to playfully call the fire brigade cost the lying child her life when a fire did happen. Still, a cautionary tale, however unrealistic is better than one promoting mindless heroism.
Not one that makes for dramatic recitation, but I like the practical spirit of this anonymous verse- it enjoins parents to be responsible caregivers:
Three children sliding on the ice
Upon a summer’s day,
As it fell out they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.
Now, had these children been at home,
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny
They had not all been drowned.
You parents all that children have,
And you too that have none,
If you would have them safe abroad
Pray keep them safe at home.
Luckily, a child’s focus is more on getting the expression right than imbibing inner meaning, but there’s no denying the build-up of a subtle mindset that exalts absolute obedience. I imagine children of more submissive eras in the past bowing down to tyrannical dictates of elders from these absorbed messages on conformity. My late grandmother for example ardently loved ” Casabianca”, a poem enjoying pride of place in one of her New Crown Readers during her schooling in the 1930’s, additionally turned into a song sung zestfully at school and even several decades later. I notice hers was a generation that sacrificed a lot on their own individuality, serving others selflessly but with little thought of personal fulfillment.
Unlike those obedient and ill- fated children of the classic poems, one has to sometimes be thankful that the young of today have minds of their own, and would argue their parents out of reckless follies. I opine that conformity and obedience are hugely convenient for parents, but listening and responding appropriately to a child’s viewpoint will finally promote the independent spirit that underlies future individuality.