A Little Learning

A Little Learning

This week’s poems celebrate the work of teachers, who instruct us in the traditional subjects starting with reading, writing and arithmetic and progressing to advanced physics, music, languages and humanities.

Their influence does not stop there, however, as Rudyard Kipling’s “A School Song” emphasises.

Kahlil Gibran, in “The Prophet Speaks of Teaching”, suggests that knowledge is within us all, and that a teacher helps us to come to an understanding of that knowledge, but can never convey the knowledge itself.

Finally, Oliver Goldsmith gives us a thumbnail portrait of “The Village Schoolmaster”.

Though teachers are often unsung and underappreciated, the lessons they teach, both overtly and implicitly, reach far into their students’ lives. I can think of a number of teachers (at school and at university) who have had a significant impact on my life: the teacher whose science club gave me an interest in electronics that led to my career in computers; the lecturer at university whose style of teaching reignited my interest in mathematics; the lady who more than anyone else helped to improve my handwriting to a legible level; there are many more I can think of who set the direction of my life. This week’s poems are chosen in tribute to them, and to the many teachers that are my friends and family.

Poem 85. A School Song

For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continues,
Greater than their knowing!

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)
"Let us now praise famous men",
Men of little showing,
For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continues,
Greater than their knowing!
Western wind and open surge
Took us from our mothers,
Flung us on a naked shore
(Twelve bleak houses by the shore.
Seven summers by the shore!)
'Mid two hundred brothers.
There we met with famous men
Set in office o'er us;
And they beat on us with rods,
Faithfully with many rods,
Daily beat us on with rods,
For the love they bore us!
Out of Egypt unto Troy,
Over Himalaya,
Far and sure our bands have gone,
Hy-Brazil or Babylon,
Islands of the Southern Run,
And Cities of Cathaia!
And we all praise famous men,
Ancients of the College;
For they taught us common sense,
Tried to teach us common sense,
Truth and God's Own Common Sense,
Which is more than knowledge!
Each degree of Latitude
Strung about Creation
Seeth one or more of us
(Of one muster each of us),
Diligent in that he does,
Keen in his vocation.
This we learned from famous men,
Knowing not its uses,
When they showed, in daily work,
Man must finish off his work,
Right or wrong, his daily work,
And without excuses.
Servants of the Staff and chain,
Mine and fuse and grapnel,
Some, before the face of Kings,
Stand before the face of Kings;
Bearing gifts to divers Kings,
Gifts of case and shrapnel.
This we learned from famous men
Teaching in our borders,
Who declared it was best,
Safest, easiest, and best,
Expeditious, wise, and best,
To obey your orders.
Some beneath the further stars
Bear the greater burden:
Set to serve the lands they rule,
(Save he serve no man may rule),
Serve and love the lands they rule;
Seeking praise nor guerdon.
This we learned from famous men,
Knowing not we learned it.
Only, as the years went by,
Lonely, as the years went by,
Far from help as years went by,
Plainer we discerned it.
Wherefore praise we famous men
From whose bays we borrow,
They that put aside To-day,
All the joys of their To-day,
And with toil of their To-day
Bought for us To-morrow!
Bless and praise we famous men,
Men of little showing,
For their work continueth,
And their work continueth,
Broad and deep continueth,
Great beyond their knowing!

This poem is the preface to Kipling’s semi-autobiographical school tales of Stalky and Co, and I’ve always thought of it as an affectionate tribute to his time at the United Services College in Westward Ho! just as the stories are, though the stories of Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk strike a rather subversive note compared to the theme of this poem.

We start by arriving at an English boy’s public school of the 1880s, situated on a bleak seashore and being instructed by the masters of the school (the famous men), the learning being enforced in a rather brutal fashion:

And they beat on us with rods,
Faithfully with many rods,
Daily beat us on with rods,
For the love they bore us!

The juxtaposition of the apparently savage beatings with the last line seems strange, but Kipling is emphasising that the masters were not administering sadistic punishments at random, but this was the tool of choice to direct those that strayed from the right way, as these men saw it. Thankfully this is a historical point now, and more enlightened corrective methods have replaced bodily harm.

The poem goes on to expand on the impact these “famous men” have had on the boys they tutored, emphasising the Victorian values of diligence, obedience and responsibility and forming the attitudes and character that built the British empire. Their students travel far and wide across the Empire—Egypt, Troy, Himalaya, Hy-Brazil (Brazil), and Cathaia (Cathay or China)—but each remembers the values instilled in him and is dedicated to his work whether that be military (the USC was dedicated to preparing boys for a military career as an Army Engineer or officer) or diplomatic.

“Servants of the Staff and chain” is a reference to the surveyors’ instruments used by military engineers. “Mine and fuse and grapnel” refer to the traditional employment of the military engineer: a “mine” originally being a tunnel dug under an enemy fortification to collapse and undermine it. High explosive would be packed into the tunnel to increase its effectiveness (and danger) and a fuse would be needed to trigger the explosive. Mining was commonly used in the First World War as a dangerous and occasionally effective means of attacking trenches, but this dates back to the wars of antiquity. Shakespeare mentions it in Henry V, when Captain MacMorris, the Irish pioneer, is out of humour because the retreat has been sounded before he can blow up the town:


How now, Captain Macmorris! have you quit the mines? have the pioneers given o’er?


By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I swear, and my father’s soul, the work ish ill done; it ish give over: I would have blowed up the town, so Chrish save me, la! in an hour: O, tish ill done, tish ill done; by my hand, tish ill done!

Act III, Scene 2 of Henry V, by William Shakespeare

When the poem speaks of “bearing gifts to divers Kings”, it isn’t referring to an underwater kingdom; it’s an archaic spelling of diverse. The “gifts of case and shrapnel” are forms of artillery shell, though it’s a bit vague as to whether these are a genuine gift, or are arriving as part of a bombardment.

“Some beneath the further stars bear the greater burden” refers to the administrators and governors of the far-flung parts of the empire, serving their peoples and loving their lands with no expectation of praise or reward (guerdon). This is a theme Kipling returned to in “The White Man’s Burden”.

At the end of the poem, Kipling shows us that the strategies and tactics we employ in our daily lives were taught us at our beginnings by these “famous men”—a deliberate contrasting of the esteem in which they should be held with their general unobtrusiveness. “From whose bays we borrow” refers to the bay leaves of a wreath of honour, for our glories and fame are predicated on their sacrifice: “They that put aside To-day/All the joys of their To-day—/And with toil of their To-day/Bought for us To-morrow!”

I discovered a particular pleasure when researching this poem: I thought I had read all of the stories of Stalky and Co long ago, but I found I was wrong—there were five I had never read before, so I have before me the pleasure of reading a little more about this subversive and intelligent trio.


Poem 86. The Prophet speaks of Teaching

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

Kahlil Gibran (1883—1931)
THEN said a teacher, Speak to us of Teaching.
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

This prose poem strikes a different note than Kipling’s, speaking of teaching as a shared experience: the teacher acting as a guide to bring the exploring mind to awareness of its own knowledge, rather than as a leader to be blindly followed.

Gibran reminds us that teaching is not like copying information between machines: there is no way of making an exact copy of the information held in one mind and imposing it on another. The teacher must communicate their understanding of a concept in a way that awakens the student’s own comprehension: “For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man”. This chimes with my experience: the teachers I learned most from were excellent communicators.

In the last line, the prophet tells us that each person must come to their own understanding of God and the earth and though others can help, knowledge is one’s own achievement.


Poem 87. The Village Schoolmaster

And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.

Oliver Goldsmith (1728—1774)

Beside yon straggling fence that skirts the way
With blossom’d furze unprofitably gay,
There, in his noisy mansion, skill’d to rule,
The village master taught his little school;
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace
The days disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh’d with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey’d the dismal tidings when he frown’d:
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
The village all declar’d how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thund’ring sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.
But past is all his fame. The very spot
Where many a time he triumph’d is forgot.

This poem describes so well the English schoolmaster of tradition, stern and severe to truants but generally a kindly and most learned man.

This village school is a place where the master lives and works, a noisy place that he controls by the force of his personality: he is “skill’d to rule”—the students apparently respect him, though they do not necessarily love him. They anxiously examine his face every morning to discern his mood:

“Well had the boding tremblers learn’d to trace the days disasters in his morning face”

They laugh sycophantically at his jokes (I imagine this man as having a fund of dad jokes that the students roll their eyes and laugh at to avoid being censured) and spread the news when he frowns with displeasure.

The poem switches now to the adults of the village, to whom the schoolmaster seems almost an alien being, educated in several disciplines: “The village all declar’d how much he knew/’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too: lands he could measure, terms and tides presage”. An eighteenth-century schoolmaster would probably have been a rare bird: he would have stood out against the rural locals, who would have been poorly educated, if at all. A man who could write and read and knew geography and could dispute with the parson on equal terms, would have been a marvel to the rustic folk around him: “And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew/That one small head could carry all he knew”.

The last lines, like the first, strike a rather sad note: the teacher is evidently gone, and all that remains is his derelict house and the memory of his intelligence: “But past is all his fame. The very spot/Where many a time he triumph’d is forgot.”

I went to my local village school in my early years and I remember the headmaster as a kindly and erudite man who was an authority on Morris dancing, being the Fool of a team of Morris Men. This poem reminds me of him, though I would never have described him as severe or stern.

Comments (from the original post)

Ayliffe Annean Taylor

That’s really interesting. My interpretation of the words is quite different to yours. I wonder if this comes from my lack of experience with rural communities or perhaps because I am evidently predisposed to view educators in a favourable light? Or maybe it is the macro vs the micro debate? The line, ‘There in his noisy mansion skilled to rule, the village master taught his little school’ conjures for me a feeling of nostalgia on the part of the poet which, when applied to the rest of the poem, paints a picture of a man slightly out of pace but much beloved by the villagers, almost all of whom would also have been taught by him and, if this be in fact the case, perhaps they are more learned and less befuddled in at least one or two of the areas described. It also makes me feel that the poet is implying none other but this man could take the ‘noisy’ and captivate it enough to shrink the chaos of children down to a ‘little school’.

‘And still they gazed and still the wonder grew, that one small head could carry all he knew’. I remember being astounded as a child at the general knowledge my teacher possessed, but this did not alienate him to me, It left me in awe. How could he know so much more than me about history and also know so much more about maths than the best mathematician in the class and also have handwriting so much neater than the best writer and also understand all about maps and also speak French etc, etc. I felt a kinship to him because of those interests and skills we shared and also an awe at those which we did not. The poets repeated use of words such as ‘little’ with reference to the school house and ‘small’ with reference to the head of the school master speak to me of warmth and affection rather then as dismissive or belittling, which I realise is odd considering the words literally are belittling! The last few lines seem to me wistful, like in the opinion of the poet, the villagers have forgotten not just the schoolmaster himself, but also all the learning he represented and perhaps their past pride in achievements gained as these represents a skill set they perhaps no longer value. Contrary to our modern perception, in the 18th century quite a lot of people were actually taught to read and write as children, although not all continued to keep up their skills as it had little relevance to their daily lives. This reminds me a little of those people in kid modern era who ‘forget’ how to imagine and how to dream as they dismiss it as childish and forget about the simple pleasure to be gained from doing so. This is why I love poetry, because two people, based on their own experiences can be left with such varying impression about the same piece, but then also gain more understanding of each other through a shared analysis of it.

Matt Willing

Ayliffe Frank Skinner said in his poetry podcast that no two people read a poem the same way, so I’m interested to see your comments.

I agree that my interpretation suggests that the master is separated from the village, which may not be the poet’s intention, and I like your description of him as a much loved person, though it seems to me that he presents a different persona to the truants who (I should have said) don’t love him as much as the others. I imagine it is they who laugh sycophantically, and watch the master’s face for growing storms; the ‘good’ students get on with things and perhaps do admire him in the way you admired your teacher.

Your point about reading and writing interests me, as I had assumed that illiteracy was pretty general but, on reflection, if there is a village school, clearly there is education so you are right to suggest that people would have been educated and then the skills taught would wither with disuse.

Thank you for bringing your perspective to bear!