Pop quiz: how old would you say the writer of the following lines was?

In submitting to the public eye the following collection, I have not only to combat the difficulties that writers of verse generally encounter, but may incur the charge of presumption for obtruding myself on the world, when, without doubt, I might be, at my age, more usefully employed.

40? 50? OK, people don’t write like that any more. Still, when they DID write like that, how old would the writer be? No? Read on:

These productions are the fruits of the lighter hours of a young man who has lately completed his nineteenth year.

Preface to the first edition of “Hours of Idleness” by Lord Byron, first published in 1807.

What kind of education did he receive, to write like this at 19? With such confidence over multiple subordinate clauses? With such easy grace and self-deprecation which does not jar but rather charms? An education that included not only a great deal of reading (his preface is headed by three quotations from Horace (in the original Latin), from Homer (in the original Greek) and from Dryden), but also learning graceful good manners.

I admit I know nothing about Byron, other than that he was a poet, a ladies’ man,  an adventurer who spent some time gallivanting around southern Europe and the Near (possibly also Middle) East, who died young and swam the Bosphorus. Possibly not in that order.

Do you wish you could write like that? I don’t! But I find myself quickly and easily imagining what kind of man he was who wrote those lines. There is a definite voice, an identity. And behind that, what life experiences, what training, what, in a word, education? He’s someone I would like to get to know.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to postpone that pleasure, as someone has just mooched a copy of  Byron Poetical Works which a retiring colleague gave me and which I immediately put up for adoption, thinking to take a look “some day”. Somehow, some day never came, and now I’ll have to put it in the post pretty soon.

Flipping thru the pages, I noticed a long poem called “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” which reminded me of a Browning poem I studied in grammar school, “Childe Roland to the dark tower came”. A fantastically evocative title, isn’t it? The title comes from a throw-away line in “King Lear”, spoken by someone who’s trying to pass as an addled idiot. Browning claimed the poem came to him in its entirety in a dream. A whole history sparked to life by a man’s imagination striking the tinder of a single line from a play.

It also inspired a painting, which you can see on the Wikipedia page. Wikipedia tells me that “Childe” doesn’t mean child but an untested knight. Perhaps a child is someone untested. Tested how? How are children tested these days? The word is almost completely associated with school and academic tests, but a knight’s test was of a different sort. And in days gone by, children, untested adults, were tested by means of various rites of passage.

What have we lost these days by abandoning these rites, these tests? John Gatto, famous retired teacher and champion of home schooling,  firmly believed in these kinds of tests. In his various schools, he used to set up challenging situations for students.  Not all of them. And he had to do it in secret, though I think he usually got the parents’ permission. Things like taking a long walk or journey, preferably alone.

In “Underground History of American Education“, Gatto mentions a few remarkable things that a few remarkable people did at a remarkably young age; things that, if they tried to do them today would likely get them arrested, and their parents, too. Young Horatio Nelson, who later became Lord Admiral of the British Navy, left home at the age of 12 and became commander of his own ship at 19. Some have said these exploits are not representative of most people even at the time, but I don’t think that is Gatto’s point – he’s calling attention to the human potential: look what young people did back then! Then think what they could be doing today, given a chance and encouragement.It’s learning from life, from taking risks, from using one’s own initiative and taking responsibility for the results; all from a young age. Gatto saw that these “feedback circuits” had been bypassed in the modern school:

The master mechanism at work to cause harm was a suppression of natural feedback circuits which allow us to learn from our mistakes. [Gatto, 2009, 92.]

It was this feedback circuit he was attempting to bring back into play into the lives of the young people in his charge.

Today, quite by chance, in class, I discovered that my 18/19-year-old students had none of them made any long journey alone. Yet. By that age, I had made several, both in England and abroad. Perhaps it was that surprising discovery this morning that prompted this post.