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  • The Long Reach of the Short Poem: Pedagogical Recitation’s Hold on Poetry Studies
  • Catherine Robson (bio)

Today’s scholars of nineteenth-century American literature frequently approach the poetic culture of the United States as at once a national and a transnational phenomenon. Discussing the special relationship this culture shares with that of Great Britain is likewise a common strategy.1 This essay takes these now-familiar steps but argues that our study of the era’s poetry has not yet included a close enough consideration of pedagogical recitation, the practice that forged far and away the largest and most significant bond between the poems and the people of these two countries in the nineteenth century and thereafter. I maintain that precise attention to the similar and dissimilar characteristics of American and British schoolroom experiences with poetry both adds necessary texture to our understandings of everyday life in the past and sheds light on a number of contemporary issues. Focusing here on a single programmatic feature—the simple (and seemingly dull) criterion of length—I suggest that the variant methods of poem-selection that prevailed in Britain and America have had powerful legacies, creating markedly different national attitudes toward those poetry-memorizing cultures of long ago and exerting structural effects on the development of literary-critical approaches that continue to condition our perception of poetic texts.

It may seem surprising, since the contributors to this special forum have been instructed to keep it brief, that I will in a moment present all twenty-four lines of an apparently undistinguished little ditty. Titled “Good-Night and Good-Morning,” this poem by the largely forgotten British author Richard Monckton Milnes earns its place in this essay for two reasons.2 First, it represents a substantial class of texts occupying a curious position in literary history—those that once held a complete presence (temporary or permanent) in the minds of millions but are now hardly known at all by anyone. As we will discover, this particular poem came to prominence in part because it fitted the recitational requirements for young children as they were levied on two sides of the Atlantic, thus standing at a point of convergence between systems that are [End Page 195] more often marked by divergence, not least in their modes of assigning poetic texts to older children. Second, Monckton Milnes’s poem serves as an example of a work whose potential to open up under past and current modes of academic literary analysis is distinctly unpromising. The question of the poem’s length bears significantly on its existence as a memorization favorite and its obduracy in the face of close reading. My decision to include “Good-Night and Good-Morning” in its entirety— and, indeed, my refusal throughout this essay to reduce it to close reading’s preferred protocol, the truncated quotation—is thus a calculated symbolic move:

A fair little girl sat under a tree, Sewing as long as her eyes could see; Then smoothed her work, and folded it right, And said, “Dear work, good night! good night!”

Such a number of rooks came over her head, Crying, “Caw! Caw!” on their way to bed; She said, as she watched their curious flight, “Little black things, good night! good night!”

The horses neighed, and the oxen lowed, The sheep’s “Bleat! bleat!” came over the road; All seeming to say, with a quiet delight, “Good little girl, good night! good night!”

She did not say to the sun, “Good night!” Though she saw him there like a ball of light, For she knew he had God’s time to keep All over the world, and never could sleep.

The tall pink foxglove bowed his head, The violets curtsied and went to bed; And good little Lucy tied up her hair, And said on her knees her favourite prayer.

And while on her pillow she softly lay, She knew nothing more till again it was day; And all things said to the beautiful sun, “Good morning! good morning! our work is begun!”3 [End Page 196]

“Good-Night and Good-Morning” began its rise to omnipresence with great speed; in 1864, only a year after its first...


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