Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad on foreign lands…
If I could find a higher tree
Farther and farther I should see,
To where the grown-up river slips
Into the sea among the ships,
To where the roads on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land,
Where all the children dine at five,
And all the playthings come alive.
In “Foreign Lands” from A Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson paints a picture for us bigger people of just what is happening in the mind of the child who climbs that tree. What’s he doing up there?
He’s looking. He’s imagining.
My heart swells when I recall the early years with my children. Stevenson is brilliant. In his poetry he captures the beauty of childhood in verse: the playfulness, the youthfulness, the imagination. But he does more. For the mother who reads it aloud, he instructs: Listen, gentle Mother, this is how your little one thinks; this is how she plays.
Shhh. She’s imagining.
I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds about the sky;
And all around I heard you pass,
Like ladies’ skirts across the grass—
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!…
O you that are so strong and cold,
O blower, are you young or old?
Are you a beast of field and tree,
Or just a stronger child than me?
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song.
Whether they “built a ship upon the stairs/All made of the back-bedroom chairs” from “A Good Play” or in the sick bed he is the “…giant great and still/ That sits upon the pillow-hill…” from the pleasant “Land of Counterpane,” children’s imaginations are wildly vivid.
Ted Jacobs has produced “A Child’s Garden of Songs: The Poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson in Song.” Beautiful! (See the following for a sampling of this CD: http://www.amazon.com/gp/recsradio/radio/B00000HZEB/ref=pd_krex_listen_dp_img?ie=UTF8&refTagSuffix=dp_img )
Years ago we played that tape every time we piled into the van. These days I am not the only one controlling the music selections. My teens in my van do. So I assumed we were long past the song version of Stevenson’s poetry. Recently they pulled out that old cassette, popped it in and said, “Mom you have to play this for the younger ones. They’re missing out. They’re not getting the education you gave us!”
Charlotte Mason, implores us to feed the child’s imaginations with a living education: “The food of mind, a daily bread as necessary as that of body, is precisely those ‘mental pictures or ideas’ which imagination produces; and for this reason, children must have the mind-stuff which they can transmute into such pictures or ideas; nothing external serves the purpose.” (“The Imagination in Childhood” by Charlotte Mason, The Parents Review, Volume 27, no. 3, March 1916, pgs. 202-207. See http://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR27p202ImaginationinChildhood.shtml)
That’s why Charlotte Mason puts forth an education in the way she does. To her, feeding the imagination is imperative, life and death. Mason continues: “I am not bold enough to say with Mr. Chesterton, ‘Hans Anderson or Hell,’ but I do venture to say that the mind which does not feed on poetry, history, fiction, travel, all the treasures that are bound up in books, on pictures, on the beauty of a sunset or a flower, such a mind may be acute and alert, but it does not dwell in heavenly places.”
Mason sees cultivating the imagination as “feeding a spiritual hunger”: “The village school child who tells how ‘the heavens opened and out popped an angel’ had used that power to produce mental pictures which we call imagination or genius or original thought; and without such exercise of the power we possess, no religion, true or false, can exist. We must be able to see those things which are invisible, or how can we lift up our eyes to God? Imagination is, like faith, the evidence of things not seen; indeed, is not faith the supreme effort of imagination wherein she stretches her wings, compels her powers to produce mental pictures, or ideas, of the things eternal?
Mason has an advocate in Anthony Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College. He bemoans the plight of childhood today in his new book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child:
Writes Esolen: “In the old days, let’s say in a one-room school house, you could easily pick out which young lad or lass was blessed with a mischievous eye and a lively mind. They were the ones hanging upside down from a couple of planks nailed up to a tree in the schoolyard, or sticking bubble gum on the radiator, or reading Ivanhoe. So you got them a few more planks and a bucket of nails, or a paddle to the rear end, or Waverly. They could be dealt with. But the bigger the school, the more dangerous and upsetting a single act of imagination can be.”[i]
Fairy tales, children’s literature, poetry…delightful! Are these a regular part of our children’s diet? They are a feast for the imagination. Unplug the T.V. Put aside the electronic games. Turn off the minivan’s DVD player and pop in an audio CD of A.A. Milne’s enchanting poetry, “Now We Are Six” or “When We Were Very Young.”
Esolen advises: “If we love children, we would have a few. If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little.”
My own imagination has been awakened and my hunger for the eternal increased through the poetry of Stevenson and Milne, the music of Jacobs, the mentoring of Mason, and the delightful, imaginative wonder of children!
Lori Lawing may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Lori Lawing 2011