154. The Old Clock on the Stairs: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

As we walked our students out the bus, a fellow teacher exclaimed, “It is great to have the kid’s back!” It was clear to me that this is why he teaches. Personally, I love talks about pedagogy, data analysis and the other esoteric discussions that fill meetings. Reading books and bouncing ideas and lesson plans off of people is something I really enjoy.

Of course, I sometimes forget in the middle of several days of in-service how much I like the kids, too. And when they are in front of me, I’m too busy to really appreciate them, so this teacher’s exclamation was a nice reminder. I searched for a child’s poem, one of the infectiousness of children, but came up with something better.

“Again! Again! Children’s poetry and the joys of repetition” is a nice piece by Sonia Levitin. Published by the Poetry Foundation, you can find it here. It’s for “children”, not the big boys and girls you teach in middle school (ha, ha). It has some good lessons. The entire text is below Longfellow’s poem, if the Poetry Foundation link doesn’t work.

I did take one of the poems she mentions–Longfellow’s “The Old Clock on the Stairs”–as it not only offers the attributes she proscribes, but has some others middle school students might be interested in, too (and I thought “Tree” was just too simple). For example, I enjoy how each stanza ends with the same lines, and that the lines are both opposites and reversed. Simple, yet elegant.

Think about how that creates place. More important, think about how that place creates an impression the goes beyond what is said. Mood. What is the story behind this?

Two ideas come to mind.

First, you can talk about the rhythms of the school. What is predictable, like the clock? Push them beyond an announcement at the end of the day, to something that, once said, everyone goes “yes!” (offer a prize!). There was one students who was late each day, who came in right after attendance, and by March people had grown so used to the sound of their arrival and slamming locker in the empty hallway that, on the one day she didn’t arrive, everyone’s day was thrown off and it took us until lunch to pinpoint why.

Second, have them tell the story that goes beyond this poem. Longfellow gives us mood, and a direction, but there are a hundred stories there. Let them run with it. Have fun.

The Old Clock on the Stairs
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear, —
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Here is the article. Click on the title for the link to the original.

Again! Again!
Children’s poetry and the joys of repetition.
by Sonia Levitin

When I was child in grammar school, we memorized and recited certain poems every year. Each of us stood and recited them in front of the entire class, and these poems have remained imprinted on my mind ever since. As each child gave his or her own recitation, I think we all learned something important: it is almost impossible to ruin a really good poem merely by reciting it ineptly.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . . .

Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

When I think of this poem, “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, a rowdy boy named Eldon, with his shock of blond hair, comes to mind. He belted out those words and gave an entirely new meaning to this sensitive, spiritual poem. After many decades I still remember him, with his head thrown back, his hands clasped to his chest. We laughed at the wonder of this bully-boy telling us that poem about the beauty of a tree.

We also learned Longfellow’s “The Old Clock on the Stairs”:

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all—

We were nine and ten years old. The rhythm made Longfellow’s poem easy for us to memorize, and I remember loving the unexpected rhyme of “portico” with “shadows throw.” We did not know that the poem was about the tragedy and beauty of death. I didn’t understand that until much later, as I watched myself and the people around me grow older. But my attachment to the poem, and what I’ve drawn from it over the years—its associations, its insights, the comfort and predictable order—has stayed with me. It has been a part of my life now for almost 60 years.

As children, when we stood at the head of the class, we felt called to perform our assigned task, and we felt a sense of equality: this poem we each learned and recited was for everyone. And we learned that everyone’s interpretation of a poem is valid, different, and interesting. Eldon felt the meter in the words, and his recitations boomed around us as if he heard a marching band. I remember the surprise I felt when I heard the words fizz against each other and the poems returned unexpectedly to an earlier sound. Hearing that sound set loose a flutter in my chest. It was private, thrilling, visceral—and mine. It still is.

Repetition didn’t make the poems tiresome. Instead, the repetition became part of us. It was entertaining! Joy is vital in our daily lives, and those poems brought us joy. And as I’ve lived with them, they have resonated with truth that I’ve confirmed internally: “Forever—never! / Never—forever!” Yes, I’ve found, that’s right, again and again.

Such a lofty mission for a mere poem, you say? Yes. I believe we come to formal poems naturally, the way a child comes to language. “Bath, book, bottle, bed” are soothing to children because they know what comes next. So is “Mary had a little lamb / whose fleece was white as snow / and everywhere that Mary went / the lamb was sure to go.” The rhythm comes measure by measure, as does the rhyme. It is a wonderful pleasure for children—for all of us—to be able to predict what comes next.

But what about nonsense poems? A poem can also call us to laughter, to play. What about a ditty such as this:

Shoo fly pie
And apple pan dowdy
Makes your eyes light up
And your tummy say howdy!

I love the rhythm—and the glee! The very sound of the words “shoo fly,” “pan dowdy,” and “tummy” make me smile. There can never be too much joy in the world. There is so much pleasure to find in repeating, smiling, clapping, and moving.

Poetry can create a frame that lifts us beyond the ordinary, into the foggy edges of the realm of human experience. It makes us pause. It causes us to remember.

When it comes to literature, one must ask, is there a special poetry for children?

Obviously, subject matter and treatment are always a consideration when it comes to children, and I think this is the only important criterion. Is the language appropriate for a child? Is the subject too mature? Children don’t need to be insulated from crisis or powerful emotion, but age and individual sensitivities should be considered. I would not present Holocaust literature to a child under seven or eight, however mild and gentle it may be. Nor would I introduce topics such as suicide or abandonment to young children. There is a time for every season.

As adults, we’ve learned to turn to poetry to mark an important occasion: a wedding, a death, a graduation, the birth of a child. Poems are large enough to capture the emotional richness of the event. But I think we forget that poetry is also large enough to encapsulate everyday experiences—and children’s poetry does that so well: the wonder of seeing a caterpillar wind its way across the sidewalk, the birth of a butterfly, the beauty of a pansy, the taste of maple syrup. Children’s poems take for their subjects every possible relationship, training the heart and the mind to savor and pay attention in a language that a child can understand.

Pictures enhance poetry for children. The sounds of words paired with pictures are especially appealing to the child—and also to the one who reads to the child. My children and I adored Dr. Seuss: “Do you like green eggs and ham? / Try them, try them, if you can.” Dr Seuss’s rhymes became part of our family fun and our family lore. One St. Patrick’s Day, I even made green eggs for breakfast!

Silly and soothing, these poems are now as much a part of childhood as the nursery rhymes of old—and they’re more accessible! Try to explain to a child why an egg should sit on a wall, what a king’s horsemen are, and why they care to mend him! But cats and hats, bread and butter, caps and creatures are known quantities in a child’s life, and as such, their placement in this zany form makes the familiar strand delightful—like peering into a kaleidoscope for the first time.

Children’s poetry has also adapted to the hybrid prose poem that currently enjoys favor in the adult poetry world. Some children’s books are entirely written as prose poems, and with enormous success, such as Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Sonya Somes’s Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. Both books deal with serious and painful topics, and the form draws the reader in but also permits a certain distance.

In my own work as a novelist, I’ve sometimes found that a poem, inserted into the narrative, is the best way to express a sentiment or highlight the theme. Poetry is concise and unabashedly emotional. I would encourage children to invent poetry, using actual words or nonsense syllables, accompanied by hand clapping, dancing, and singing. It will draw them out. It will attach them to the rhythms of the world and their own bodies. As a species, I believe we have an innate love and need for the subtle but strong influences of poetry, in both the general and the literal sense. Like music, poetry connects us one to the other as it blends and harmonizes our inner and outer selves.

One thought on “154. The Old Clock on the Stairs: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Add yours

  1. your post gave voice so eloquently to many of those thoughts that I’m unable to put into words…I teach middle school students in India and now that I’ve discovered your blog, will use it , if you don’t mind , to rejuvenate myself with ideas…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: