What happened when I asked some students to perform some of Blake’s poems

So today I encouraged one of my Year 13 classes to set Blake’s ‘The Ecchoing Green’ and ‘London’ to music by taking them to the Music Theatre and seeing what would happen.

Perhaps a little fool-hardy, but I was interested in a) what poems they would choose having the whole range of poems to choose from b) what they would do.

One group weren’t keen on the idea, but chose to read ‘The Ecchoing Green’ without a huge amount of enthusiasm. One student asked what the point of the exercise was; why couldn’t they be in class taking notes on the poems, like most poetry lessons? I tried to explain about Blake’s “aesthetics”; that he believed that poetry needed to brought alive by illustrations, by music, by being read aloud. We then looked at the ways in which the poem deploys a rising rhythm, using iambs and anapaests to create a sense of hope, of optimism, with the beats constantly rising, until the final verse when the dactylic “darkening” is used to create a sense of falling.

This group had been organised and knew that we were supposed to be in the Music Theatre; they are a studious group, with people in it keen to do well. They were, however, very self-conscious. There was a sense that they were “experienced” in the sense that a certain playful ‘jouissance’ which you can sometimes find in younger children doing this kind of exercise was missing from them.

However, the other group – who hadn’t listened about where we would be and went to the wrong classroom initially – embraced the idea with a child-like abandonment. It was almost as if I had let go of a pressure valve; they lost their inhibitions. They went completely mad on the drums and xylophones but in the end produced quite a powerful reading of ‘London’. The version was very, very rhythmic, the group caught the marching rhythm of the poem, which uses iambs in a very different way to his approach in ‘The Ecchoing Green’.

There was some debate about students reluctance to post things on the blog; they preferred to put things in their books where it could be definitively marked, rather than responded to. I have thought about this, but still feel a blog is a good venue for posting ideas and thoughts for the students because everyone can read it, and learn more easily from each other. This could be done on a discussion forum on the VLE, but that shuts down at the end of the year and everything is lost.

I suppose I left the lesson feeling that Blake’s teaching are still very radical; that they challenge not only what you teach but how you teach. His aesthetics demand a holistic engagement with his work rather than a lecture-based approach.

Next week though, having introduced the poems in this way, I am going to make the lessons much more “traditional”; the students will be researching allocated poems in depth and presenting their thoughts to the class, having looked at the relevant critics. I am aiming to teach them about the historical and literary context of Blake’s poems.

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One student’s thoughts on the two ‘Nurse’s Songs’ from Innocence and Experience

The Nurse’s Song –Innocence

When reading the poem ‘The Nurse’s Song’ aloud, it allows the audience to get a different perspective of the poem.  For example it may be the way a person reads the poem aloud; perhaps stressing certain words or the volume and tone they read it in.  By reading aloud each individual will have a different take on the poem and this allows discussions and opinions to become more interesting and fluent.

What interests me most about the poem is the relationship between the nurse and the children.  The nurse is portrayed as a kind, gentle and compassionate woman, almost seen as a mother like figure.  It seems that the children really look up to her and obey her rules and regulations.  The nurse takes pleasure in watching the children play, its as if their cheerfulness inspires her to be at peace.  She supports them rather than overshadowing their innocence.  In the poem we also see that the children are not threatened by her; if they ask for more play time she allows it.  There does not seem to be any evidence of alienation between the nurse and children which emphasizes the happiness and joy of the poem.

The Nurse’s song is about a group of children playing outside in the hill’s whilst the nurse watches over them like a mother would her child.  As twilight arrives she kindly orders them inside, however they ask to play until bedtime.  The nurse gives in to their pleas and the children are overjoyed.

This particular poem portrays the theme of innocence by using the four stanzas to express the happiness and freedom of childhood.  In the poem it mentions “And all the hills echoed”  meaning that the children’s happiness is rebounded around them- in other words it symbolizes that joy is carried and spread around the playground.  This ending quote sums up the poem nicely as it brings an content  atmosphere for the audience.  The poem is also rhymed with an ABCB pattern, allowing the poem to become much more interesting and fun to read.  This highlights the main theme of innocence and happiness throughout the poem as William Blake’s words and patterns make the audience happy too.

The Nurse’s Song- Experience

What interests me most about this poem is that it opposes ‘The Nurse’ Song- Innocence’.  I find this incredibly intriguing as it is as if the poem has been continued into the future.  It explains how growing up allows you to experience new activities and sights, which will in turn lead to the loss of childhood innocence.  This particular poem also juxtaposes with ‘The Nurse’s Song-Innocence’ as it is not as cheerful and joyful.  It allows the reader to recognise the harsh reality of society and how important childhood is to an individual.

This poem begins with the nurse hearing whispers from the children which suggest that they are partaking in secret activity which allows them to become experienced.  When hearing this, the nurse ‘turns green and pale’ and reflects upon the previous innocence of the children.  The nurse then realises that the children are becoming young adults and are aware of their own sexuality; in other words, they are growing up.

The rhyme scheme in this poem is not the childlike rhyming pattern used in the previous poem, this suggests that the nurse is upset and displeased that the children are growing up and losing their innocence.  The experienced ‘Nurse’s Poem’ is half the size of the innocence poem with only two stanzas instead of four.  This could represent the rapid growth of the children from the first to the second poem and allowing the audience to sense the nurse’s loss and disappointment she is feeling.