There is a gravestone in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground that legend purports marks the resting place of Mother Goose. Now, whether Mother Goose lived in Boston or any other place in the world is less of a concern than if she is dead to the world. The death of Mother Goose, who teaches the love for beauty, must result in the death of culture. No one can raise human beings as she, who particularly knows what being human is about.
Man, as Mother Goose knows (and Aristotle agrees), is a rational animal. Aristotle goes on to say that man, as a knower, has knowledge of the truth as his end. Not to be outdone, Mother Goose points out that man must first have some inkling of the truth before he can rest in it. That is to say, man must have some obscure experience or indirect knowledge of his end before he can do anything appropriate in selecting the means to arrive there. Aristotle certainly agrees—for to disagree with Mother Goose is no trivial matter.
This first knowledge, this pre-knowledge, that Mother Goose speaks of is prerequisite to any Aristotelian, or scientific, knowledge. Let us call it Goosian, or poetic, knowledge. Poetry is the knowledge of experience, standing outside the categories of science that comprehends truths in a clear and distinct way through their causes. Poetic knowledge comprehends truth in a clear yet indistinct way: truths such as love, fear, joy, and all the rest of their kind. Everyone knows these things very well, but only as mysteries. There are truths science cannot demonstrate, nor rhetoric corroborate—and those truths belong to poetry. Poetry, however, being pre-rational cannot define itself. It is itself a mystery about mysteries and so must it be accepted.
The most important age for poetry is the age where it is most beloved. It is in the nursery that poetry fulfills its purpose of providing pre-knowledge most poignantly. Nursery rhymes, and by these are meant Mother Goose, introduce children to the world. They present vignettes of reality, constantly changing their shape, page by page, from one subject to another. There is no attempt to present any idea of a whole because there is no need for an integration of things at this tender age. The child is happy to explore a vast multitude of goods without worrying about what they all amount to or tend towards. Mother Goose simply plays with the parts, diving one at a time into the many worlds that make up our world.
What focus there is, is on the household and workaday life—the sorts of things that happen when people wake up, eat meals, do chores, play games, and go to bed. Mother Goose is not so concerned with mysteries since everyday existence is enough of a mystery to any child who is seeing it all for the first time. Mother Goose rhymes portray plain, honest truths in plain, honest fashion, whose profundity most have forgotten through custom. For children, these rhymes not simply satisfying—they are soul stirring because dogs are as exciting as dragons and puddles as infinite as oceans. Mother Goose parades a whole host of such ordinary wonders before her little blossoms, and in this they are given a taste of reality—and a taste for it, as well.
The peaceful audacity of Little Boy Blue, with his defiance of the rhythms of a world of beasts and schedules, is enchanting. Besides the large truths about life peering out from behind these little poems, they are first and foremost delightful. These delights are an introduction—nothing more; but introductions are often the most important part of coming to know anything. The genius of these rhymes as introductions to the way things are is that they are rhymes. They settle themselves comfortably into the hearts and minds and mouths of children, becoming part of their language and a ready measure for the things they experience—and a finer measuring stick there never was.
These little introductions to the wide world celebrate the commonplace in a common way. Mother Goose well knows that they will be beheld as uncommon; and that the mysteries we have grown dull for are more than sufficient to satisfy the innocent. Mother Goose serves as a principle awakener to the everyday wonders of the world for young children. Without her wise prattling, children run the risk of being forever babes in the woods, deprived of the touchstones that help to form the habit of knowledge. Without the habit of these indispensable nursery rhymes, a child may never acquire appetite or aptitude for works that plumb the depths of reality. Without the poetry of the nursery, every other poetic mode and instinct will be crippled.
The good of these rhymes, however, is not that they provide children with patterns or preparations on how to be moral, or well behaved, or good readers, or any other practical thing. They are good for their own sake, giving children the all-important experience of resting in an end. Any utilitarian good that proceeds as a result of their having these rhymes written in their heart is purely accidental. Mother Goose’s melodies approach the world as children do—by playful imitation. There is no need for explanations. There is only need for engagement and enjoyment. That is the way children learn to become scientific knowers—by pretending to be first. And it is the game that is, believe it or not, more important because it is prior.
The most significant obstacle to providing today’s children with the experience of poetry is that Mother Goose has not brought up many of today’s parents. The solution to this difficulty is simply that parents who have no experience of poetry should read it, beginning with Mother Goose. Poetry—that is, beauty, perfection, and participation in the goal—is good for grown-ups too. No matter how old, or how busy, it is always important to be reminded of the end that all our distracting means are for the sake of.
Moreover, no parents can give their child what they themselves do not have. No child will take to heart what its parents brush off. If parents want their children to pray, they must pray first. If parents want their children to be virtuous, they must be virtuous before them. If parents do not read and savor poetry, neither will their children.
The first step to giving your children the gift of poetry is to give yourself to Mother Goose—and the gift that Mother Goose gives is Beauty.