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Learning poetry by heart

October 2, 2014

Here in the not-yet-Untied Kingdom it’s National Poetry Day. William Sieghart, who founded it,  was talking on the radio this morning about the value of learning poetry by heart.

My father could, and did, recite poems by heart; two that come to mind are Kipling’s “Gunga Din” and “Casabianca”, better known by its first line, “The boy stood on the burning deck”, by Felicia Dorothea Hemans.

At school I learned Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and at home I learned many more. Poetry that rhymes is easier to memorise, of course. Most of the poems in my memory-bank are rhymed. Most of the poems I read nowadays are not. In the Oxfam bookshop in Taunton yesterday I came across one that I learned as a teenager and can still recite: “Sick Love” by a poet whose influence on me at that age was immense, Robert Graves. In this 1931 edition it has a different title.

Sick Love

The book was retired from Luton Public Lending Library in November 1957. At the back it still has a brown-paper pocket, and on the title-page explicit instructions for its care.

Rubber stamp

The book is clean and shows no sign of water-damage, nor has any corner been turned down. It now lives on the shelf next to my 1975 edition of Graves’s Collected Poems, which does show signs of water-damage due to a plumbing mishap many years ago.


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