I first learned a poem by heart when I was eighteen. I had a pocket edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and my friend was late arriving to meet me, so I made use of the time, and learned Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ It didn’t take me long, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I was never required to learn a single poem by heart during all of my years in state education. It’s one of the many missed opportunities which I deeply regret, and one of the glaring omissions in current practice which I am determined to put right.
The only way to give poetry its due is to memorise it. Leaving it on the page is the equivalent of being content with reading the score of a symphony, when you could learn to play it. We can all play the symphony of words. It’s within the grasp of anyone, even the illiterate. It is one of the most egalitarian, empowering and unifying things that can be done with literature. It places on the lips of Everyman the most powerful and inspiring words that have ever been spoken in the English language.
When you memorise a poem, you take possession of it. It becomes part of your mental landscape. You can take it out and look at it whenever you wish. You can turn it around in your mind as you walk the pavement, as you ride the train, considering its many qualities, as you might admire the many sparkling surfaces of a polished diamond. It is yours to treasure and enjoy for the rest of your life. If the internet goes down, if the power is cut off, no matter. You have a power source within which is not dependent on these modern contrivances. It only depends upon the humanity you share with everyone.
When one considers the many benefits, personal, intellectual and cultural, which flow from memorising great poetry, one has to ask why on earth it was ever dropped from the curriculum in British schools. Why would you drop something so powerful and enriching, that is open to everyone capable of using language, as long as they are willing to expend a certain amount of effort? This is one of the clearest examples of the damage done by progressive ideology. Because of the attack on fixed knowledge and rote learning, generations of children have been cheated of their cultural inheritance. If I could master one sonnet in a spare hour, how many more could I have mastered during all those years I spent in state education?
But I want to end positively. Memorising poetry is one of the core elements of my teaching now. It may be harder now I am in my thirties, but I am seizing the opportunity to fill my own mind with beautiful poetry. If I insist my pupils master it, I must do the same. Typically my lessons begin with all pupils reciting a poem together as they walk into the classroom. It’s an inspiring, uplifting and unifying way to start. As our repertoire grows, it gets ever more enjoyable. When I have been late to class, I have even found a group of pupils striking up a poem in my absence.
I’m currently learning Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ with year eight:
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . .