6th January 2022
Through working for Poetry By Heart, Tom Boughen tells us he’s grown to better understand the legacy of poetry memorisation in schools, and the effort to provide better resources for teachers and students to engage with.
Many older people have memories of learning poetry by rote in class. The spectrum of personal experience means those memories can easily be accompanied by a nostalgic smile or a painful shudder. There is such an enormous disparity between people’s personal experiences of poetry memorisation in schools, depending on resources, teacher preparedness, the suitability of the poems or the age when you first attempted it. It is almost a roulette-spin between the most inspirational moments of one’s education, or some of the dreariest and most disengaging.
It was one of those November evenings when night creeps up at four o’clock. Over dinner with my grandad at my parents’ house, the subject of poetry memorisation reared its head. I’d never given much thought to my family’s own experiences of it. With no prompt from me, my grandad, ninety-five years old that October, freely recited the first two stanzas of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats…
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
Remarkably the only thing he forgot was the poet and poem title. When reminded of the poet’s name he exclaimed “that was it, Yeats!” like remembering an old friend. His ability to recite the poem wasn’t based on the visual. He hadn’t seen the written form of it for many years. It was a poem that he learned by rote at fourteen, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War, and was able to recite at a dinner table over eight decades later.
‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is the only poem he remembers from that class of over thirty students, in which poems were recited en masse. Occasionally a student was required to stand up in front of everyone to recite alone, with the implied threat that if you forgot any of the words, you would be required to do this again and again until you did remember.
Victorian narrative poems and ballads were the trend of the late 1930s and early 1940s schoolroom. My grandad recalls staid, sedate lessons where he studied ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold and ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson. He would have liked to do ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’ – battles and certain-death glory seem to have appealed to him more than lyrical romanticism – but he never had the opportunity. He has one of his old exam papers from the time, showing the significance of Victorian narrative poetry, even in 1940.
His eyes light up when remembering Shakespeare. In comparison to learning poetry by rote as a whole class, with Shakespeare each student was assigned a specific speaking part, and encouraged to bring a more creative interpretation of the dialogue. I was surprised to hear that his teachers adopted such a free approach to Shakespeare especially compared to the mass rote-learning of poetry, but regardless it explains the enduring appeal of Shakespeare to my grandad.
We often say that to learn a poem by heart is to carry it with you for life. This is my testimony to the possibility of that. My grandad has carried Yeats with him like a treasured possession for eighty years, along with a slice of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He can still start the doomed soliloquy:
‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.’
Tom Boughen is Content Coordinator at Poetry By Heart, has a History MA and previously worked as a TEFL teacher in Madrid. He enjoys reading, writing and playing tennis.