Pass On A Poem



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learning poetry by heart

Discover the benefits of learning poetry by heart, source poems that are fun to learn, and send in your own suggestions

 

CATHERINE PORTEUS, a pass on a poem reader from West London, describes how being required to learn poetry by heart as a child both at home and at school is something she has become increasingly grateful for over the years:

 

"At my very traditional girls’ school in the 1950’s we thought our English teacher was a tyrant : she was demanding, opinionated, rigorous; a word wrongly used or a phrase badly expressed was as bad as a mistake in grammar or spelling.   AND she made us learn by heart.   Hamlet, King Lear, Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet”, Henry V before Agincourt, John of Gaunt’s “Sceptr’d Isle” speech from “Richard II” - and when we were younger the songs: “Come unto these Yellow Sands”, “Ye spotted snakes with double tongue” “Fear no more the heat of the sun”- all had to be word perfect.   Sometimes we were encouraged to choose for ourselves what we should learn - my taste went for the gloomy and romantic. “The Burial of Sir John Moore”  “I had a dove and the sweet bird died”  “If I should die think only this of me”.     We found for ourselves, and wept over, the First World War poets - the  second War was only five years away, and there were girls in my form whose fathers had been killed, so it was all painfully relevant  But whether we liked it or not we had to take  on board large chunks of verse -  Spenser and Milton, John Donne, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”,   Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge.   The Victorians were out of fashion or at any rate not on the syllabus, but I still remember reading Matthew Arnold and Tennyson under her eagle eye.

In fact I didn’t mind the learning by heart as much as most of my friends, because, although I had no idea how important it was to be for me later, I didn’t find it all that difficult.   The traditional daily service in the school chapel, now as unfashionable as learning by heart, was another source of splendid poetry.   Almost without noticing one  acquired, by frequent singing, such  poems as Addison’s “The spacious firmament on high”, George Herbert’s “Come my way, my truth, my life” and Henry Vaughan’s beautiful  “My soul there is a country, far beyond the stars”, not to mention the glorious words of the psalms and the most famous passages of the Authorised Version of the Bible.

But this had all started earlier than school and our fierce but admirable English teacher.   Long before I could read to myself, my younger sister and I were familiar with The Child’s Garden of Verses, Lewis Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark” and Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs and Verses.   I suspect that I would now be diagnosed as dyslexic - I couldn’t read till I was past seven, so if I was to hang onto these favourite poems I had to know them by heart.   The illustrations to John Gilpin and The Pied Piper of Hamelin are as much engraved on my memory as the words, and helped me to remember the verses in the right order.   Later on our father introduced us to Tennyson, Kipling, Walter Scott and Macaulay whom we adored.   My sister even won five shillings from him for reciting the whole of “Horatius”(some 540 lines) - quite an achievement for an eight-year old.

What, of course, one does not realise at an early age is that the ability to learn decreases with advancing years. I have enjoyed much of the poetry of the 20th century, from Eliot and C.S. Lewis to Betjeman and Ted Hughes, but no amount of effort enables me to retain it, and I have to return to the written word.   Now, as I repeat those long-ago-learnt verses to myself at moments of anxiety or stress, sorrow or elation, or just to alleviate the plain ordinary boredom of traffic jams and bus queues, I am more than grateful to those who enabled me to acquire such a rich store, which will last me as long as my memory does.

And I remember too the account by Evgenia Ginsberg in her book Into the Whirlwind  of how the poetry she had learnt as a child had enabled her to endure the terrible years in Stalin’s Gulag, and indeed, when in solitary confinement, had, she thought, actually saved her sanity.   Most of us, please God, are unlikely to suffer such torment, but I still think it is a pity that getting children to learn by heart is now dismissed as “learning by rote”, and dropped from the curriculum. "

 

anthologies and audio collections

ed. Christopher Reid. Sounds Good 101 Poems to be Heard. (Faber)

ed.Ted Hughes. By Heart. 101 Poems to Remember (Faber)

ed. Hollander. Committed to Memory : 100 Best Poems to Memorize (Penguin)

 

some poems to try learning by heart

 

ANNABEL LEE

EDGAR ALLEN POE

 

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

THE BREAD OF THIS WORLD

THOMAS McGRATH


On the Christmas white plains of the floured and flowering kitchen table
The holy loaves of the bread are slowly being born:
Rising like low hills in the steepled pastures of light —
Lifting the prairie farmhouse afternoon on their arching backs.

It must be Friday, the bread tells us as it climbs
Out of itself like a poor man climbing up on a cross
Toward transfiguration.

And it is a Mystery, surely,
If we think that this bread rises only out of the enigma
That leavens the Apocalypse of yeast, or ascends on the beards and beads
Of a rosary and priesthood of barley those Friday heavens
Lofting...

But we who will eat the bread when we come in
Out of the cold and dark know it is a deeper mystery
That brings the bread to rise:

it is the love and faith
Of large and lonely women, moving like floury clouds
In farmhouse kitchens, that rounds the loaves and the lives
Of those around them...

just as we know it is hunger —
Our own and others — that gives all salt and savor to bread.

But that is a workaday story and this is the end of the week.

 

 

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

ROBERT FROST

 

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.


The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

from MACBETH

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

 

SCENE I. A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.

Thunder. Enter the three Witches
First Witch
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.

Second Witch
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch
Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.

First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Third Witch
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

 

 

THE DESTRUCTION OF SENNACHERIB

LORD BYRON

 

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass'd,
And the eyes of the sleepers wax'd deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there roll'd not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!