Earlier this year the Education Secretary Michael Gove suggested that primary school children ought to learn a poem by heart. Even if the teaching unions had not objected I would have needed no further convincing. I was converted to Gove’s idea years ago, by Terry Waite.
Having haphazardly discovered poetry on my own at state school, it was slightly later that I heard Ronald Runcie’s hostage-negotiator-turned-hostage give a sermon on a cold Sunday evening in chapel. Within ten minutes he had introduced me to a new poem and a new idea, which is a good average for a sermon. The poem was ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. ‘Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose garden.’ Hearing the lines for the first time, I realised I had to keep them. The next day I took ‘Four Quartets’ out of the library.
The idea was more idiosyncratic. Waite explained that one of the things that had got him through his captive years in Lebanon was having Eliot, and other poetry, in his head. Though this eventuality would be unlikely to sell the Education Secretary’s plans, something of the idea should be retained. Even if the worst never happens, it is worth filling your head with the best words in their best order because it gives you the greatest company as well as guidance throughout your life.
As a self-taught memoriser, learning poetry by heart is worth it for many reasons, but two in particular: for exercising the mind, and furnishing the soul.
Today very few adults know any poetry by heart. On a recent edition of Question Time none of our political elite (three politicians and a former director-general of the BBC) had any poetry at all in their heads, though the journalist on the panel had plenty. Since few people seem likely to take up memorising poetry in adulthood, school is the best, if not only, chance for this treasure-store of knowledge to be instilled in you.
But it is never too late. If you are starting off, the best advice is obvious: do not learn the poetry you think you ought to learn, but rather the poetry you would like to carry with you.
You can do worse than starting with any Oxford Book of English Verse. Take a random approach. Find a line or two that appeals and read the section aloud a couple of times. Close the book and try without, then again with, and so on until you’ve got it.
Memorising helps you understand a poem’s form but it is easier if the poem rhymes and scans. If it does, then even if you don’t understand the scheme, when lines slip in your memory the poem itself helps you back on track. Such poetry — Housman,
Fitzgerald’s ‘Omar Khyam’ and much Tennyson for instance — also stays in the memory best. There are sections of ‘In Memoriam’ I taught myself 15 years ago which are still there when I reach for them.
Ballads are a good place to start. ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is full of memorable sections. As well as being moving and packed with good phrases you are helped by every other line of the six-line stanzas rhyming. Again, once it is in your head it is hard to lose. Other poets who do not write in straightforward forms — Emily Dickinson for instance — still have a knack for phrases and rhythms that help it stick.
The same is true of Yeats, though there is much to be avoided. The Conservative MP Rory Stewart has an enviable amount in his head as he once demonstrated to me on a Scottish beach before an edition of Any Questions. Personally I have never wanted any others than ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (which I can never do) and the far easier ‘To a Child Dancing in the Wind’ (which I can).
I should stress what this is not for. Once memorised, you should never give in to the temptation to recite poetry to, for instance, your loved one: you may think you are being romantic; they will think you are being contrived. But although you do not need to share it with them, love poetry is a wonderful thing to have in your head. As well as being quite easy to memorise, Shakespeare’s sonnets speak better about love than anything written before or since. If you are joyously in love then Sonnet 29 is wonderful to have. If more perspective is needed then Sonnet 12 will do.
Poets who do not straightforwardly rhyme and scan are harder work, but if the content appeals to you they can often be worth the effort. Those that appeal most to me — Auden, Larkin, Gunn — always reward the effort. The mental discipline is also good. For some years I have been in the habit of silently reciting some moving though knotty lines from Thom Gunn if I wake after a heavy night. It is a kind of mental fitness check. I wish Larkin was easier to keep whole, instead of only by the occasional chunk. But ‘At Grass’ and ‘An Arundel Tomb’ can be done. I think of ‘Church Going’ all the time, but can never do it all.
So what else is it for? Hoping none of us ever find ourselves chained to a Beirut radiator, having poetry in your head, by heart, nevertheless means that wherever you are you are always accompanied by the best that has been thought and said. Like an in-built iPod, what you have, and what you select, speaks to your own personality and your own loves.
‘Four Quartets’ and much of the rest of Eliot has kept me company for nearly 20 years. But it is good always to keep adding. Just the other week I read and realised I wanted to keep Auden’s ‘Moon Landing’. The closing lines spoke to me, and I hoovered them up straightaway. I already find them helpful:
Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.