Learning lines

Fifty years ago this term, Miss Stanley was the English teacher for Form 1 Br at Elmhurst Grammar School. Miss Stanley loved literature and reading and words. Being among the dullest in the form, it was only in later years that I realised how good a teacher had taught us.

Fifty years ago, Miss Stanley taught us Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Going through the lines of the Jabberwocky with my First Year class this afternoon, I thought it was probably the only poem I could remember from my schooldays.

Perhaps the learning of poems was not part of our education. More accurately, perhaps it was just not part of my education.

In schooldays, my daughter developed a habit of reciting poetry to herself while standing and waiting for things. There were two poems that recurred, both demanding greater skills of retention than the Jabberwocky.

The most frequently recited when we stood on railway platforms was W.B Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Perhaps Yeats’ protest against the pointlessness of the Great War had a point of contemporary reference for a secondary school student in the Noughties. The unwinnable conflicts being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed as futile as the wholesale slaughter of 1914-1918.

The other poem she would recite was more baffling.  Perhaps it was taught in school Irish classes, it was an Irish translation of Oliver St John Gogarty’s The Ship.

Tháinig long ó Valparaíso.
Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan.
Chuir a h-ainm dom i gcuimhne
Ríocht na gréine, tír na mbua.

‘Gluais,’ ar sí ‘ar thuras fada
liom ó scamall is ó cheo.
Tá faoi shleasaibh ghorm Andes
Cathair scáthmhar, glée mar sheod.

Perhaps its meaning was not important, how many people in former times understood Procul Harum’s song Whiter Shade of Pale? Perhaps it was the sound of the words that mattered. Perhaps to be always looking for meaning was to be too literalist.

Perhaps learning the Jabberwocky set off fifty years of not understanding poems.

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