Poetry’s ‘Formative Power’: Teaching Poetry in Tasmania 1900-1950
Poetry has always featured in formal learning programs, but both its function and importance have varied over time according to political and social needs. In his analysis of texts used in the teaching of English from the sixteenth century to 1870, Ian Michael illustrates the different functions poetry served during this period. These ranged from teaching skills - such as grammar, spelling, vocabulary, elocution, rhetoric and composition - to the more elevated aims of fostering Christian beliefs, moral and social values, and particular standards of personal behaviour. When compulsory education was introduced in the nineteenth century poetry met many of these needs, but educators were particularly diligent in describing poetry's power to instil virtue and faith in the young. In this period more liberal approaches to education evolved, underpinned by what Ian Reid calls 'Romantic ideologies' (22). In 1880, Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry was 'capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which men have assigned to it hitherto', believing that '[m]ore and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us' ('The Study of Poetry' 171). In his Report for the same year, Arnold, then an inspector, wrote that the 'acquisition of good poetry is a discipline which works deeper than any other discipline in our schools'.
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