“Recitation: The Children’s Art”

To continue with the topic of recitation and education, here is an article by Arthur Burrell, “Recitation: The Children’s Art,” from The Parent’s Review 1 (1890-1): 92-103, edited by Charlotte M. Mason. The article is on a website dedicated to the writings and teaching philosophy and practices of Charlotte Maria Shaw Mason (1842-1923), a British teacher and educational writer. Her works include Home Education (1886), A Liberal Education for All: The Scope of Continuation Schools (1919) and An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education (1923). (For more about Mason, see Barbara Caine, “Mason, Charlotte Maria Shaw (1842–1923),” rev., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com]).

Burrell’s article starts with a complaint that children are ‘natural’ reciters, but this ability is ruined through bad examples of recitation at school, home and church. In discussing the usefulness of recitation, he offers an interesting description of the exchange between the reciter and his/her audience, and a plea for recitation’s importance for the appreciation of literature:

“So magical is the power of a good reader that he can convey to an audience shades of meaning in his author which he himself does not suspect. Again and again a face in a hall will light up at some touch conveyed by a tone or a glance, and the very speaker will thank his hearers for lessons. As it would be with a picture, if by some unknown mechanism it could absorb the fancies of the faces that read its meaning, so it may be with the owner of a voice. More receptive than the mere canvas, the reciter watches the approving and disapproving glance; he sees the sympathy and he feels the silence; his audience may be receiving a lesson, but they are assuredly giving one.

And if such appreciation can be born when a good reader and a good audience meet, is it not worse than madness for us to look on English literature as mere work for the study, mere dictionary stuff? It was meant to be interpreted by the voice of life; there is only half the passion in the printed page. If there were more good reading round English firesides, do you suppose that the masterpieces of English thought would be studied, as they often are, merely with an eye to the examiners’ certificate?”

Burrell then proceeds to give some practical advice about how to teach a child reading (Burrell uses “recitation” and “reading” interchangeably, suggesting that he regards these activities as one). He begins with an astonishing list of ‘dont’s’:

(1) You are not to allow any imitation of the Stage.
(2) You are not even to encourage exaggeration in voice or gesture.
(3) You are not to allow recitation before a company of admiring friends.
(4) You are not to let a child think that Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings are the only writers of comedy.
(5) You are not to let your child learn Browning.
(6) You are not to choose tragic or sentimental pieces.
(7) You are not, as a rule, to give lessons in the presence of a third person.
(8) You are not to tell your child that he or she can recite well.

Twain is prohibited because his humour is of “a low class”; Browning because his poetry is “is very rarely intelligible to children, and is nearly always harsh to a musical ear.”

Burrell suggests that parents create their own recitation anthology, because published anthologies are always inadequate, and offers a list of suggested pieces and books.


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