William Shakespeare was ‘the onlie begetter’ of those words, which have been in my mind in this month of poetry.
I’ve discovered that in the United States, very few children learn poetry by heart any more, and I suspect that the same is true of education in most Anglo- Saxon cultures. I think it’s a shame… my mind still teams with the phrases and rhymes, and the glorious words of poets and prayers learned throughout my distant childhood. They sustain me in good times and in bad… and though there’s so much beautiful poetry written today, does anyone recite them anymore?
I go back to my childhood, learning my first poem when I was four… Charles Kingsley’s, ‘I once had a dear little doll, dears’ – it came from a fat book of children’s poems – with no pictures. By eight I had decided to become a poet, by nine I was learning the poems of Water Scott and Elizabeth Barret Browning, at eleven we were learning ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh’, ‘doing’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, at school, and learning the exquisite poetry of Shakespeare …’ I know a bank whereon the wild thyme grows’… the next year it was ‘The Tempest’… ‘Come unto these yellow sands,’… ‘Julius Caesar’… ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’, and ‘Henry V’… ‘Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies,’… ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,’… ‘we few, we happy few, we happy band of brothers,’… ‘Richard II’… ‘This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,’… ‘The Merchant of Venice’… ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes,’… ‘Hamlet’, ‘words, words, words’, indeed, and not least that amazing speech, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, and so many phrases we still use today…including: ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’… ‘to shuffle off our mortal coil’… ‘’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished’…
And finally, in the Upper Sixth, Anthony and Cleopatra… ‘Age shall not wither her, nor the years condemn’, words I have hugged to myself as a hope and example, as I near four score years. Our acquaintance with Shakespeare was cursory but better than the nothing that seems to rule in schools today.
It was a matter of pride among my friends to be able to recite poetry – in the third form we all learned Walter de la Mare’s long poem ‘The Listeners’…. ‘Is there anybody there? asked the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door,’… and some of us even tackled ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and though no-one got to the end, we never forgot phrases like ‘A painted ship upon a painted ocean’. No difficulty remembering the exquisite rhythms and quatrains of Omar Khayyam… ‘Awake ! for morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which put the stars to flight’….
‘Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest’…
‘They say the lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep’…
But poetry was more than beautiful words and pictures and ideas. It opened up our hearts and minds to deeper meanings, ideas and symbols, and to the beauty of rhyme and rhythm. When my father died unexpectedly when I was in my twenties, and far from home, I turned to John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:
‘Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,
My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.
In grave he rests until the world shall end.
The world shall end, as end all things must have.
All things must have an end that Nature wrought…
Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend…
I rocked to and fro to the rhythm of the words, and found a bleak comfort to tide me over into the next stage of grief. The insistent beat of that poem was a distant memory of the comfort of the rhythmic rocking which all babies receive, whether floating in the womb, rocked in their mother’s arms or pushed in a rocking cradle. Rhythm is one of the deepest and oldest memories for human beings. And rhyme is a joy that even toddlers discover as they chant simple verses, before stumbling onto the deliciousness of alliteration as words become their treasure.
For my generation the glory of words, poetry, rhyme and rhythm didn’t stop in the classroom. Every day in assembly we sang hymns with words that still linger in my memory, and swim to mind appropriately… like the glorious day looking from my cliff-top cottage and the lines, ‘cherubim and seraphim , casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea’ made land. We sang ‘Morning has broken’ long before Cat Stevens made it famous.
We listened to daily readings from the King James Bible and the poetry embedded itself in our consciousness… ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven’…. ‘If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’…’And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds’…
When we weren’t listening to our daily dose of the Bible, we were using the exquisite words of Archbishop Cranmer’s 1553 Prayerbook,… ‘now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word’… ‘come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’… ‘Oh God, give unto thy people that peace which the world cannot give…’Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all the dangers and perils of the night’… words and phrases that lifted the spirit and gave comfort when needed, in times to come.
The vocabulary of roughly eight thousand words of the King James Version of the Bible, printed in 1611 had a ‘majesty of style’… and has had more influence on the English language that any other book, apart, perhaps, from Shakespeare’s works, with a vocabulary of sixty thousand or so words. In the past, the words, the rhythms and cadences of these two influences shaped the speech and the writing, and seeped into the consciousness of people all over the world, who grew up speaking English.
They thought and wrote and spoke without even thinking, in the beautiful, simple rhythmic prose they heard every week at church, and throughout their schooldays. Sullivan Ballou’s famous and profound letter written to his wife before his death at the First Battle of Bull Run in the American Civil War, is as much a product of that heritage as the wonderful last lines of John Masefield’s ‘The Everlasting Mercy’.
It saddens me that this common heritage of prose and poetry and prayer, those wonderful words of beauty and meaning, has dribbled away under neglect, lack of appreciation and understanding. Modern education seems to treasure instead new and shallower ideas.
Alan Bennett’s brilliant play and film, ‘The History Boys’ encapsulates my point of view perfectly! It made me feel I was not alone in my regrets at the passing of our rich poetic literature, and so much that has added to the sum of civilisation. I love much that is new – too much to list – and there’s so much to explore… but the learning by heart, the exploration of the genius of Shakespeare, the absorption of great prose and poetry often seems less important in today’s education system, than technological expertise and business knowhow, women’s studies and sporting prowess.
This is called progress I know, and I know too, I am old fashioned, but in these matters, I am a believer in not throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Hic transit gloria mundi… thus passes the glory of the world.
PS I completely forgot to answer the comments on my last blog while we were cleaning up after our massive storm/cyclone.. apologies, I loved them, and will be answering them shortly
Food for threadbare gourmets
Saturday supper with friends, and something we could eat on our laps round the fire. So, it was salmon risotto. Just the usual recipe – onions in butter, arborio rice added and fried until white, plus garlic, then a glass of good white wine poured in. I no longer bubble it away, but add the hot stock quite quickly, plus a teaspoonful of chicken bouillon.
For a fishy risotto, it should be fish stock but I had some good leek and potato stock saved, and I also used the liquid from poaching the salmon. All the recipes tell you to use lots of different types of fish, but I only had prawns, and salmon. I had thought I’d also use smoked salmon, but at the last minute changed my mind, and then wished I had more of the poached salmon … (which I’d eaten for lunch with freshly made mayonnaise!)
Anyway, I added cream and some fennel when the rice was almost soft and just before serving, threw in a grated courgette to get some green colour from the skin in, plus a handful of baby spinach leaves… and after stirring around, added the fish and more cream…. forgot parsley! And then the Parmesan of course….
Amounts? To one large onion, I used a cup of rice, several garlic cloves – medium sized – glass of dry white wine, hot stock as it needed it… a cup of prawns, and half a fillet of salmon – should have used more – plus the courgette and spinach as you fancy. Half a cup of cream, depending on how moist the risotto already is … or I might use a big knob of butter and not so much cream…This doesn’t stick to any of the recipes… I just use what I have…this was enough for four.
Food for thought
“I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.” Elizabeth von Arnim, author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and other books
31 responses to “Words, words words…”
I grew up in a multi-lingual immigrant family, Valerie. English was my fourth language. My generation was the first to attend school regularly and actually make it past grammar school. In my childhood, poetry was a chore. Now that I’m much, much older, I’m beginning to appreciate the beauty of words. It’s never too late! 😉 xoxoM
Thank you for your lovely comment Margarita… how fortunate you are to be able to speak four languages… no danger of Altzheimers for you!
Yes, It’s never too late for anything I’m finding, as I continue to explore life !!!
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This post resonates with me, Valerie. We grew up with the orange Childcraft books, published by the publishers of World Book Encyclopedia. (I always enjoyed looking things up in the World Book.) Although I’ve gotten rid of the dated science and similar dated area books, I’ve kept the ones with children’s poetry. Mom read them to us before we could read and our whole family enjoyed them. So did our girls, because I read these to them as well. We studied and enjoyed Shakespeare and I still have poetry anthologies in boxes in the basement (waiting for a room for a library.) So much is lost when these aren’t read to and enjoyed with each generation.
Janet, what a delicious comment from you again… it’s so lovely to know that you and others feel as I do about this precious gift of civilisation …thank you for making the time to write such an illuminating comment…
I was never very accomplished at remembering lines of poetry or phrases from literary works, and always envied people who were so adept at it. You have the ability to transport your reader to a specific place and time, and in such detail. This evening I saw a young girl in her twenties painfully morn the loss of her father and it reminded me of losing my own Father when I was twenty-four. I don’t think of him as often as I used to, but this evening I did, and I thank you for that. A beautiful post, Valerie.
Elisa, it’s lovely to hear from you, and thank you for being so appreciative, it means a lot …and thank you for your message about finding my comment to you in Spam… I know what you mean… I never look in Spam, and I obviously should….!!
My generation learned nursery rhyms at school, but the curricilum didn’t follow up with poetry. As a homeschool teacher, I was eager to introduce poetry as a daily enjoyment to the curriculum. And now that my daughter is in school, I am so pleased to see her curriculum full with Shakespeare. The value of poetry is better understood these days. Your post promotes the value of being able to have poetry stand-by in your memory and soul to celebrate good times and to endure suffering.
So good to hear from you Paula, and good to know that poetry is coming back…homeschoolig must have been such a joy as well as a challenge…
I’ve tried following your lovely blog to savour your beautiful painting but don’t seem to be doing the right thing !!!
My paternal grandmother was a poet. I used to have a small book of hers that is now lost and no one else seems to have a copy either. I mourn the loss of it. My son was her first great grandchild and I do still have the verses she wrote for him in 1974.
I can’t really add to your lovely post sharing your rich heritage. Thank you for that.
Rochelle, Why not give us the name and title of your paternal grandmother poetry book so that we can be on the look out in our local communities and (native language) online sites? I am most willing to have the title listed in my phone and see if I come across it during my bookhunts.
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Paula, I’ve scoured the internet and don’t hold out much hope. Apparently it was published to a narrow audience. At any rate, I would be grateful if it could be found. The book was “The Pendulum Swings” by Miriam Wisoff. Thank you.
How interesting about your grandmother… loved the title of her book..
Thank you as ever for your eloquent appreciation, it is always a gift.
What a great reminder for my age of memories. My USA public education did require memorising and reciting poems. Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken , became my teenage chant to freedom. Thanks for the memory.
Dianne, I loved that poem of Robert Frost too… it still gives me encouragement when I need it ! Thank you for your comment – it always gives me a buzz !!!!
I grew up with a Teacher grandmother (although retired) the first poem I remember learning (and there were many, she believed in poetry) was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer
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Trees – Poem by Joyce Kilmer
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I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I’m glad you weren’t hurt in the horrible storm!
Linda, thank you for the words of that poem… we used to sing them to a beautiful tune, and I’d forgotten all about them until now… heavens knows that living here in the forest, I should have th0ught of those lines !!!!
I especially love the last two lines…
We had several storms one following another.. but are now in a period of lovely calm autumn days…letter coming !!!!
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I’m so glad you are safe!
My first poem I learned by heart was “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson: “How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing Ever a child can do…..” My parents splurged (I grew up in gentile poverty) on the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was about 4 years old. Along with the “big people’s” Encyclopedia came the Children’s. The first two volumes were filled with poetry. What a gift – one that will always stay with me. I always liked Dr. Seuss’s take on how to introduce a child to poetry/reading. “You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.” Hugs coming from the other side of the world.
Oh Rebecca, wasn’t Encyclopedia Britannica wonderful until Google!
I gave my thirty volumes to a school a few years ago !
Loved Dr Seuss’s lines.. he always managed to find the right wacky words !!!
Love to you, Valerie
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Beautiful words Valerie. They have such power to move us and make us think. The words the young use today are somewhat different. Gutter language and used around their children. Progress?
Lyn, thank you so much for your beautiful and appreciative words –
I know what you mean about gutter language… hip hop has much to answer for too.. grammar and spelling are becoming lost arts !!!
Never had to learn poetry when I was at high school (last year 1983?), but my first degree was Arts in literature, so I made up for it and still read a lot of poetry. More and more old Prufrock is on my mind:
‘I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. ‘
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Actually, for some reason, over the years that second stanza has become (in my head):
I shall walk along sandy, sunlit beaches,
eating ice cream and peaches.
… obviously the foodie in me expressing itself. Eliot always looked like he could do with a good feed.
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Yes, Eliot had a dyspeptic anguished look… and yes, I love his poetry …
I envy you doing your degree… I always thought it must be heaven to be in a place where you could read as much as you liked, and were actually required to read…
I think your line may be an improvement on Eliot – ( he must be turning in his grave !!!)
Wonderful in content and sentiment. Many thanks… pushing this idea is an “enterprise of great pith and moment”. Do not desist!
Thank you so much for such an encouraging comment, it’s greatly appreciated.
Needless to say I have visited your fascinating site and enjoyed reading both the literature, the philosophy, the history and the economics… including butter v margarine article from the Economist.
I have strong views about margarine, as a ferocious foodie, and would like to have known if it is really true that margarine is only one molecule away from plastic !!! just going to google this…
Words helped nurture my imagination and I still remember lines I memorized as a child from Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” poem. Thank you for the snippets from various literary luminaries which brings back fond memories.
I loved this the day you wrote it but things have been somewhat hectic around here. Your post actually inspired my post on Shakespeare’s birthday so thank you.
It was lovely as I read the start lines of all those pieces of poetry that you quoted to find the continuation going on in my head – what a shame they aren’t learned in the same way any more. I also had a lovely little collection called For Your Delight edited by Ethel L Fowler which I still cherish to this day. It has featured in my blog! i used to make up tunes for all the poems and sing myself to sleep. Thank you for bringing that fond memory back into my head. 🙂
I appreciate your blog so much. I fortunately was able to attend an English girl’s school in SA whose principal was from England. She also taught English and poetry plus Shakespeare were her beloved subjects. Am now in NZ and sadly most of old school’s methods are frowned upon.
Do you remember our time in hospital. Last year ,almost July, we both had been operated on for fractures. Have you fully recovered because I don’t think U will
Am on my way back to SA for short holiday.
How lovely to hear from you… what a comfort it was that you were in the bed next to me during that awful time when I was so addled with morphine and all the rest !!!I missed you when you left…
I spent another two months in hospital in Morrinsville, and didn’t return home until the middle of September, still unable to walk. Am still on a high dose of painkillers, though eased off the morphine a few months ago… my leg was completely smashed, and I am full of metal !!!!
Hope your leg healed well… it must have been lovely to get home to your daughter and grand children… have a lovely holiday in SA.
I loved your comment about my blog, thank you so much… it’s always lovely to know that friends read and enjoy it,
very best wishes, Valerie
You certainly had a feast of literature and poetry when young,
I used to go for more lightweight stuff like ‘The Highwayman’ of Walter de la Mare, or ‘Pied Piper’, or ‘Ancient Mariner’ (I loved the ‘very deeps did stink …’ bit). Ones by heart were ‘Jabberwocky’; ‘Phrenology’ and ‘Gentle Alice Brown’ (WS Gilbert); and ‘A Code of Morals’ by Rudyard Kipling. Also ‘The Brook’ and (later) ‘Dover Beach’. A strange mix!