The growing mind needs better nourishment than "conjugated verbs" and "nouns declined"

— Cowper, William (1731-1800)

Place of Publication
Printed for J. Johnson
The growing mind needs better nourishment than "conjugated verbs" and "nouns declined"
Metaphor in Context
Like caterpillars dangling under trees
By slender threads, and swinging in the breeze,
Which filthily bewray and sore disgrace
The boughs in which are bred the unseemly race,
While every worm industriously weaves
And winds his web about the rivell'd leaves;
So numerous are the follies that annoy
The mind and heart of every sprightly boy,
Imaginations noxious and perverse,
Which admonition can alone disperse.
The encroaching nuisance asks a faithful hand,
Patient, affectionate, of high command,
To check the procreation of a breed
Sure to exhaust the plant on which they feed.
'Tis not enough that Greek or Roman page
At stated hours his freakish thoughts engage,
Even in his pastimes he requires a friend
To warn, and teach him safely to unbend,
O'er all his pleasures gently to preside,
Watch his emotions and controul their tide,
And levying thus, and with an easy sway,
A tax of profit from his very play,
To impress a value not to be erased
On moments squander'd else, and running all to waste.
And seems it nothing in a father's eye
That unimproved those many moments fly?
And is he well content, his son should find
No nourishment to feed his growing mind
But conjugated verbs, and nouns declined?

For such is all the mental food purvey'd
By public hackneys in the schooling trade,
Who feed a pupil's intellect with store
Of syntax truly, but with little more,

Dismiss their cares when they dismiss their flock,
Machines themselves, and govern'd by a clock.
Perhaps a father blest with any brains
Would deem it no abuse or waste of pains,
To improve this diet at no great expense,
With savoury truth and wholesome common sense,
To lead his son for prospects of delight
To some not steep though philosophic height,
Thence to exhibit to his wondering eyes
Yon circling worlds, their distance, and their size,
The moons of Jove and Saturn's belted ball,
And the harmonious order of them all;
To show him in an insect or a flower,
Such microscopic proofs of skill and power,
As hid from ages past, God now displays
To combat Atheists with in modern days;
To spread the earth before him, and commend,
With designation of the finger's end,
Its various parts to his attentive note,
Thus bringing home to him the most remote;
To teach his heart to glow with generous flame
Caught from the deeds of men of ancient fame,
And more than all, with commendation due
To set some living worthy in his view,
Whose fair example may at once inspire
A wish to copy what he must admire.
Such knowledge gain'd betimes, and which appears,
Though solid, not too weighty for his years,
Sweet in itself, and not forbidding sport,
When health demands it, of athletic sort,
Would make him what some lovely boys have been,
And more than one perhaps that I have seen,
An evidence and reprehension both
Of the mere school-boy's lean and tardy growth.
(ll. 109-168, pp. 263-5)
At least 6 entries in the ESTC (1786, 1787, 1788, 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, 1795, 1798, 1799, 1800).

See Poems, by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. Volume the Second. Containing the Task. An Epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq. Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools. And the History of John Gilpin. 2nd ed. (London: Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1786). <Link to ESTC>

Reading The Poems of William Cowper, eds. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford UP: 1980), vol. 2 of 3.
Date of Entry

The Mind is a Metaphor is authored by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia.