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Saturday, March 27, 2010

POETS AS GREAT CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS


V SUNDARAM I.A.S.



                                       T.S.ELIOT (1888-2965)

The greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards. - T S ELIOT

What is so beautiful, what is so wonderful, what is so noble about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us all the creative impulse. Literature is the most exciting human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, uncertainty, complexity, difficulty and mystery of human life and existence.

Psychologists, teachers and almost all people nowadays agree that the most important formative years in shaping adult personality and character are the very early years. In fact, many psychologists and educators insist that by the time a child is six or seven most of his adult qualities will have been determined. If this is true, or even partially true, then obviously parents must be as wise as possible providing the right environment during the children's earliest years.

What present-day psychologists are now saying, poets and prophets have been saying for generations. We read in Proverbs 22.6: 'Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it'. As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow is an old English folk saying. Our heritage is rich with scriptures and comments of this kind recognizing the importance of wise education in youth.




















Recently I was re-reading three great poems, two by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and one by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), which emphasizes these points. First is a little poem by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So it is now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The child is father of the man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The key line in the above poem is 'The child is father of the man'. Anyone who studies Wordsworth's poetry as a whole knows how modern he is in the recognition of the vital relationship between childhood experiences and adult natures.

Indeed 'the child is father of the man' in the sense that what the man (or woman) becomes is largely determined by what the child experiences.

All of this is extensively re-stated in Wordsworth's masterpiece, 'The Prelude', which is a long poetic recollection of all the incidents and feelings in his childhood that Wordsworth felt contributed especially to his personal growth to maturity as a poet. Often he includes in 'The Prelude' incidents which might not appear to be very important but which he knew had great impression upon him as a child, and therefore great importance. Of the many passages that might be chosen from this long, complex poem to illustrate this point, I would like to quote a few selected lines:

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up

Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:

Much favoured in my birthplace, and no less

In that beloved Vale to which, erelong,

We were transplanted ? there were we let loose

For sports of wider range.'

Sometimes it befell

In these night wanderings, that a strong desire

O'erpowered my better reason, and the bird

Which was the captive of another's toil

Became my prey; and when the deed was done

I heard among the solitary hills

Low breathings coming after me, and sounds

Of undistinguishable motion, steps

Almost as silent as the turf they trod.

Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale

Roved we as plunderers where the mother-bird

Had in high places built her lodge; though mean

Our object and inglorious, yet the end

Was not ignoble.

The telling phrase 'Fair seed-time' is especially meaningful. Childhood is a time of tender growing when, influenced by experiences of beauty and fear, the attitudes, values and personality qualities of adulthood are fixed. Thus Wordsworth recalls, in richly musical blank-verse lines, two boyish pranks of snaring birds and robbing birds' nests, and then observes, 'though mean our object and inglorious, yet the end was not ignoble'. The incidents themselves may have been 'mean and inglorious', but the end, the shaping of a grown man, was not ignoble.

 
The third poem is 'There was a Child Went Forth' by Walt Whitman.

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning-glorious, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird',

And the water plants with their graceful flat-heads ? all became part of him.

- And all the changes of city and country wherever he went,

His own parents, he that had father'd him and she that had conceiv'd him in her womb and birth'd him,

They gave this child more of themselves than that,

They gave him afterward everyday, they became part of him.

The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious 'whether and how',

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it flashes and specks?

Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes and specks what are they?.....

These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.


LORD TENNYSON

The same idea expressed by William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman was also expressed in a beautiful poem called 'Ulysses' by Lord Tennyson. Tennyson said: 'I am a part of all that I have met'. Childhood, as Whitman dramatises, is the time of absorbing. A child is like a sponge, soaking in everything around him. Children are curious about everything, and everything in their environment combines to make them what they become.

Sometimes all of us in childhood did things that in themselves may have been petty, but nevertheless taught us a significant lesson. Truly childhood is the 'Seed-time of life'. There is an old Sanskrit poem (author unknown) which declares: 'You can count the seeds in an apple, but who can count the apples in a seed?'

In Victorian England, many outstanding educationists thought that classical music played an important role in fostering a child’s intellectual development. Many modern day scientists conducting experiments in the field of child development psychology have come to the conclusion that poetry is superior to prose as an instrument of a child’s mental development in the most impressionable years of early childhood.

They have established that the reading of poetry crystallizes thoughts and emotions in the field of memory more effectively than reading prose. This is so because the reading of or listening to poetry instantaneously involves or sets in motion the active use of more processes in the brain than the reading of prose entails or demands.

To quote the words of Richard Grey in this context: “ IF LITERATURE is food for the mind, then a poem is a banquet, according to research by Scottish scientists which shows poetry is better for the brain than prose. Psychologists at Dundee and St Andrews universities claim the work of poets such as Lord Byron exercise the mind more than a novel by Jane Austen. By monitoring the way different forms of text are read, they found poetry generated far more eye movement which is associated with deeper thought. Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose.”
                         Lord Byron 1788-1824        Jane Austen 1775-1817

Preliminary studies using brain imaging technology have also shown greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop during childhood.

The use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people listen to poetry and prose, has already indicated that a larger area of the brain gets lit up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Jane Austen
It has been universally noticed that the eyes of children get enlivened, radiating tremendous energy and enthusiasm when they listen to great poetry. I have seen their eyes getting lit up and moved when the following poem of the great American poet E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) is read out to them on the eve of Christmas every year.


E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

Little Tree

little tree

little silent Christmas tree

you are so little

you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest

and were you very sorry to come away?

see i will comfort you

because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark

and hug you safe and tight

just as your mother would,

only don't be afraid

look the spangles

that sleep all the year in a dark box

dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,

the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms

and i'll give them all to you to hold

every finger shall have its ring

and there won't a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed

you'll stand in the window for everyone to see

and how they'll stare!

oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands

and looking up at our beautiful tree

we'll dance and sing

"Noel Noel"

Let me conclude this article with the following poem by Sri.Chinmoy. In my view this is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language.

                                           Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007)

"My poet-child, I want you to sing with Me:

I barter nothing with time and deeds.

My cosmic Play is done.

The One Transcendental I was.

The Many Universal I am.

I am the Soul-Flower of My Eternity.

I am the Heart-Fragrance of My Infinity."



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