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Education Imagery in Poetry from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century - Overview

Selections from a Catalog

"Gladly would he lerne and gladly teche,"1 the final line of "The Prologue" of Chaucer's popular Canterbury Tales, describes Chaucer's ideal teacher, the Clerk of Oxford, and is frequently cited by delighted educators as a universal ideal of an entire profession. For that reason, I borrow the image and line as a title for an exhibition which was held in Special Collections and Rare Books on the fourth floor of Wilson Library, at the University of Minnesota from March 1 to April 15, 1997.

This exhibition features selections of verbal representations in Occidental didactic poems and other poetry depicting educational themes compiled in a catalog for an M.A. Plan B project under the advisorship of Professor Ayers Bagley, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, at the University of Minnesota. The catalog is currently undergoing the final stages of completion.

Two principal ideas lie at the heart of the project and exhibition. First, is the Horatian concept of 'ut pictura poesis,' or, 'as is poetry so is painting,' based on Simonides of Ceos' idea of 'poetry as a speaking picture.'2 Second, are the didactic origins of purpose shared by poetic, historic, and philosophic discourse. History and poetry are usually distinguished in terms of poetry as fiction and history as fact. However, as much evidence exists to dispute the notion of poetry as purely a purveyor of fiction devoid of didactic purpose as there is to support the notion of history as a series of fictionally constructed narratives biased by individual cultural identity and experience.

One of the earliest theoretical discussions of this problem traces back to Aristotle's Poetics. For Aristotle, the poet and the historian differ not so much in the writing of verse or prose, but in the distinction that poetry relates what may happen, while history relates what has happened. Poetry is, therefore, more philosophical and higher than history. Poetry expresses the universal while history expresses the particular or actual.3

The Catalog

Over a thousand short poems and excerpts from longer texts and works of epic proportions have been compiled into a catalog of poetry depicting educational themes. These have been identified through several methods. The primary method has been to identify a set of keywords, for example, student or teacher, and then using these keywords to search poetry indices in both book and electronic form by subject, title, and first line.4 Once a poem is identified each is located in an anthology or other primary or secondary source, gathered, photocopied, added to the physical catalog, and added to the electronic database. These poems have been amassed from literally hundreds of different anthologies and collected works. A second search was conducted of educational documents5, and a selection of source materials identified through references in history of education textbooks, and a third search was conducted by systematically (alphabetically) searching the Reader's Encyclopedia to identify and isolate works of a didactic nature, or those illustrative of educational themes and motifs. Numerous bibliographies and lists of themes and motifs have been compiled, along with background information on authors and their works. The final stage is indexing and classifying the poems into eight categories by title and first line. Exceptional works, or those that relate to a particular subject yet fall outside of the title and first line classification, are identified as such.

The methodological approach used in compiling the catalog and the exhibition is education iconography, or, the study of the imagery of education, primarily focused upon the first of three stages, that is, the identification of themes and motifs.6 Iconographic analysis is a method or tool, an aid to assist in uncovering and revealing the symbolic or hidden subject matter in art, in this case, the art or imagery of poetry wherein lies the signification of themes of education.7 Erwin Panofsky identified the three stages of iconographic analysis as 1) primary or natural subject matter, 2) secondary or conventional subject matter, and 3) intrinsic meaning or content.

The Exhibition

Any attempt to present a survey of a given topic or event over the course of several thousand years is greatly limited by space, and what is included and excluded becomes chiefly a matter of selection and personal choice. This exhibition is an attempt at portraying a chronological survey of Occidental history of education through the imagery of poetry from antiquity to the present. Showcased in six glass and chrome enclosures in the gallery shared by Special Collections and Rare Books and the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, numerous anthologies, electronic databases Granger's Poetry Index and Roth's Poetry Annual, and other reference works such as the National Biography, Reader's Encyclopedia, and massive numbers of journal articles and books have been consulted. These sources have been heavily relied upon for biographical background material for the exhibition, and the electronic catalog LUMINA and card catalog records provide important information about the history of specific books and editions.

Case I focuses on mythical images, values, ethics, and ideals depicted in Homeric Education: The Iliad and the Odyssey.

Case II focuses on the curriculum of Greek education. The work of Sappho is used as an exemplar for female education, the curriculum consisting of music, dance, and athletics, and the various Odes of Pindar exemplify the synthesis of the cultivation of the mind with the body in athletic and poetic contests and competition. A poem by Bion translated as "The Teacher" depicts a popular mythological theme represented in verbal and visual media, the Education of Cupid, (Love, Eros).

Case III focuses upon Roman education, and placing image and text side by side, brings into the public eye several illustrated editions of Juvenal's Satires VII and XIV, Ovid's Ars Amatoria and Metamorphoses, and Martial's "To a Schoolmaster." Educational themes include instructions for parents who serve as examples to their children, virtue and vice, or, positive and negative example as lessons, the inculcation of proper habits, the use of corporal punishment in the schools, and depictions of relationships between students and teachers, for example, wise Cheiron the Centaur instructing the famous Achilles.

Case IV explores medieval education, especially schools and university influences. Emphasis is on Chaucer's character of the Clerk, and his depiction of the song school. Also represented in this case are the less noble aspects of education and students' attitudes away from study, turned towards drinking, gaming, and carousing, in works from the Carmina Burana.

Case V depicts Renaissance education, and focuses primarily upon emblems and the courtesy and civility literature.

Case VI Romantic Education examines educational themes in the works by Blake, Wordsworth, and Longfellow. Primary themes include a representation of the schoolboy, and the Platonic doctrine of recollection.


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Last modified on December 10, 2010.