Seeds of inspiration

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The classics are not just a load of old daffodils. With National Poetry Day on October 5, Huw Thomas looks at ways of reaching a new generation

Many older people's memories of classic poetry include wearily ploughing through "The Daffodils" or grimly trying to locate the symbols in "Ode to a Nightingale". Put off for life, few return to poems that could have brought great joy if taught more imaginatively.

As teachers we want children to understand what makes these works last without boring them.

Classic poetry offers a wealth of verse forms. Lyric poems create a picture. Narrative poetry tells a story like a movie. Ballads, such as Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Elegies, such as Auden's "Stop all the Clocks...", are reflective poems often mourning a dead person.

Always provide a few examples of any type of poem so that children can learn the skill of following the storyline through the verse. Recognising that classic poetry comes in a number of forms helps children to see the poem they are studying as a whole, and to understand what it is trying to achieve when they begin to read.

Anthologies lump classic poems together in dull ways. If we are to bring them to life we need a more lively grasp of what they are about.

Take, for example, the two poems on this page. "The Tide Rises..." could be said to be about the seashore. You can picture it in a volume about sand and sun. Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods..." could be included in a volume about woodlands, full of squirrels and acorns. But look at what they have in common.

Both poems feature a traveller of whom we know very little and have centres which take our eyes off the traveller, either by the description of the sea or the horse. In both the journey continues, but much is untold.

By exploring a deeper link between two poems, children can grasp the emotions each one evokes. The sense of disaster in the verses on the Fire of London in Dryden's "Annus Mirabilis", for example, links to a similar feeling in Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Much of the challenge lies in the language, which can be off-putting. Ask children to write to lines from a poem and then cut out each word. They can sort these into two piles - those they know and those they don't. The latter pile provides a list of words to examine in the context of the poem. Take the opening of the last stanza in "The Tide Rises...". What are steeds? Or stalls? The steeds neigh - so that's a clue. If we define steeds we get some idea of what a stall could be. Anyone embarking on a life of reading classics needs to be able to manage the unfamiliar through recourse to the familiar.

My Year 6 class studied "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare, fell in love with the word "smote" and argued about why the traveller had come to the lonely house. These classics last for a reason. All we need to do is let them speak to a new generation.

Huw Thomas teaches in Sheffield


The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;

Along the sea-sands damp and brown

The traveller hastens toward the town,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in the darkness


The little waves, with their soft, white


Efface the footprints in the sands,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in

their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveller to the shore,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

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