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January 2019



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Off By Heart

Peotry is sissy stuff that rhymes
So says the great sage Molesworth, who then informs us that the only poem in the English language is The Brook. He does also mention Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Tennyson, 't s eliot christopfer fry auden etc' and that famous poem SIR THE BURIAL SIR OF SIR JOHN MOORE SIR AT CORUNNA SIR, so something is sticking in his brane. Apart from Hilary McKay in her Exiles books, I can’t think of a modern children’s author whose books are full of literary references.* That’s a pity, because it’s a painless introduction. It was reading Arthur Ransome that taught me about the red glare on Skiddaw rousing the burghers of Carlisle, the boy standing on the burning deck and stout Cortes on a peak in Darien.

dovegreyreader’s post about learning poetry by heart inspired these thoughts. Like Lynne, these days I can’t even remember my own mobile number yet my head is stuffed with poetry of various kinds. Is there a difference between words you just remember (nursery rhymes, hymns) and something you learn deliberately? Either can be invaluable for plucking from the mind at a suitable moment. I learnt Henry V’s Agincourt speech when I was young and found it terribly useful at the dentist’s. An elderly woman told me that when she was in hospital and very weak, it was a comfort that she could recall chunks of the Prayer Book without effort.

In The Faber Popular Reciter (1978), Kingsley Amis says, ‘When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting.’ He says the book is intended not for reciting in the way that people used to but for reading aloud. The qualities required are ‘absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line.’ This means including a lot of ‘good bad’ poetry and leaving out some of the best, to fit the brief. These are the kinds of poems that Nancy and Peggy Blackett and countless other children were made to learn by heart: Sir Patrick Spens, The Royal George (one of Molesworth’s!), Gray’s ‘Elegy’, Upon Westminster Bridge, The Village Blacksmith, Home Thoughts From Abroad, The Charge of the Light Brigade, O Captain! My Captain! And many, many more.

I can still remember odd things I was made to learn at school, from ‘Overpopulation is too many people living in a country for the resources of that country to support.’ to Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus. One teacher I knew used to make his class learn the American Declaration of Independence (they were very proud of it) while another would dazzle his pupils by reciting the entire Periodic Table, inspiring them to want to do the same. These were not especially bright children but they enjoyed the competitive element. So is it cruel to make children learn poetry, or will they thank you for it later? I’ve just found this. Perhaps fashions are about to change.

*Correction. I remembered later that Jacqueline Wilson is another.


I remember talking to my mother about some of the pomes that she had learnt at school, and how they have stayed with her ("Up the airy mountain..."!). I had nothing of that when I was at school, but I learnt various things by heart just for fun. They occasionally pop into my head now, and it's surprising how familiar they feel, even when I haven't thought about them for years.

I don't think that that learning directly encouraged my mother's adult interest in peotry - or mine, either. But perhaps it made that interest more possible.
Ooh, I know Up the airy mountain; it was in an old book of my mother's. I used to learn things for fun, too, I just wonder if it does any good to make people learn things they don't really want to.
Down the rushy glen, We something something something for fear of little men.

I had that in an old book of my mother's too.
... daren't go a'hunting ...

I adore poetry and have several books by various poets, the most recent purchase a couple of weeks ago was a 1953 edition of The Penguin Book Of Australian Verse which is 'interesting' reading :)

I'm in awe of those who recite poetry by heart because as much as I love it I can never remember it, even at school I could barely recall anything more than the first couple of lines! I do remember nursery rhymes, oddly.
Nice icon! I'm certainly not up in Australian verse, apart from Peter Porter who lived in the UK. I should look out for some.