Bards in fealty

21 May

Memories light the corners of my mind  is the first line of a huge 1970s hit for Barbra Streisand  as part of the soundtrack for the film,  The Way We Were – a sugary-sad romance about opposites who love eachother. The song is better than the film and, as with so many soundbites, the sentiment of a phrase can capture an indelible truth.

When I was twelve my English master, Ken Cripps, demanded that the class pull out our Palgrave’s. In his Leavisite way Kenny didn’t overly care whether we understood too much of the oft-impenetrable verse but by repetition we could divine meaning, our senses would be touched, certain techniques made clear and we would all be changed. Well that was his theory. Palgrave had anthologised the canon of English poetry from around Shakespeare’s time onward and we were to take our medicine from Book IV of his Golden Treasury.

Kenny C would read aloud. Then he would choose one of us to repeat – usually a pupil who had washed his hair that morning so Kenny could enjoy stroking shiny, soft strands. The second reading was often inexpert (of course) with emphases all over the shop, enjambement ignored, unintended caesuras abounding. I mention these two techniques because our Ken introduced them as a way of showing how a stumbling, incoherent  delivery could be transformed by pause or flow; a breath here, a running together of words there.

Now he would give us a third reading. His gruff, gritty voice became all emphasis and nuance. High, then low, he would squeeze out meaning from intonation and pace. What the words actually meant was secondary for a while. Rhythm and flow came first; the sound of the words. Well, so far so good – and the lesson was half over by now anyway. Now the poem – it was On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats. The title hadn’t given us many clues. We wondered what a Homer was and who was this bloke Chapman who owned it. What sort of thing was it that it could be looked into? None of this was explained during the first three, unadulterated readings.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen:

Round many westerns islands have I been,

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his desmesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men

Look’d at eachother with a wild surmise –

Silent – upon a peak in Darien.


Then the first question. Tell me something that you like about it, boys? Think for a few seconds. Let brain engage before mouth. A finger-point to a non-plussed mate of mine called Newton. Not sure there’s anything I like about it sir, apart from the end. Stifled laughter all-round and a genial smile from Sir Ken. He gruffly rejoined: And after just how many lines does the end arrive? Boys hands flew into the air and Sonnet! Sonnet! Sonnet! whisper-shouted the smart arses who had done poetry by numbers at prep. school. What’s the significance of that – anybody? Ken challenged. Quiet, a silent uncertainty. We’ll come to that later. Now Sorro, you’ve been ducking behind Roynon to avoid being picked on; tell us what you like about Keats’s efforts.

I was struggling. I quite liked what I had read and heard but I didn’t have much of  a clue as to what it was about. It seemed to concern a man travelling and seeing sights – the first line a giveaway, possibly. The ending came as a surprise Upon a peak in Darien and seemed to break the rhythm of the rest of it. And who was Chapman who spoke in the poem loud and bold? At primary school teachers would tell you the story of the poem first, if it was difficult to glean from the words on the page. Not with Ken; he made you sweat. And a teacher-encouraged silence fell upon the class as Kenny waited for me to come up with something. I didn’t quite have enough time or clues to work it out for myself so I scanned the words again. After what seemed like minutes but can only have been seconds I heard myself saying,

” I like a phrase that I can’t understand, Sir.”

“And what’s that dear boy? ” smiled the begowned teacher.

Bards in fealty to Apollo hold. It sounds majestic, Sir. And I don’t know what bards are or fealty is but I know that Apollo is a Greek God. I like the sound of words I don’t know.” I couldn’t work out whether  I was sucking up to teacher or actually telling the truth. I  didn’t know if what I had said was stupid or clever or funny.

Kenny smiled, almost druled. He wrapped himself up in his gown and turned towards the blackboard, raising his eyes to the ceiling in some form of supplication. Round many western islands have I been/which bards in fealty to Apollo hold, he repeated; then again; and again. Each time he would summon up more and different meaning somehow. His voice was powerful, he seemed taken into his own world. But soon he came down. I can’t recall if we had to read the thing through again but I remember his praise and his finger-wagging the class with Always enjoy the sound and meaning of new words! The lads responded with polite giggling.

He told us the story of Keats reading Chapman’s translation of Homer and being excited by his clarity and earthiness. He likened Keats staying up to read with his buddy Charles Cowden Clarke to modern boys  enjoying comic stories of  heroism in  war  or tales of extreme challenges and the triumph of the human spirit which can capture the imagination. As 50s children we had grown up with tales of WW2 and WW1; Sir Edmund Hilary had not long before ascended Everest…the 20th century had seen so many milestones of human bravery and achievement, triumph and disaster. Our historical senses were fine-tuned too. We had had a linear, empire-centric, thorough and largely rote run-through history from the prehistoric onwards. Countries, flags, monarchs, wars, plagues, inventions, ‘firsts’, machines, famous men and women, social and political milestones – all dated and stamped. We were still on the journey but a huge amount of basic info. was committed to heart. Easy homework to set; easy test to administer the next day. And so it was.

After filling in more biographical, literary and historical detail, Kenny swept out of the room, pre-bell, as was his habit, booming instructions for homework as he disappeared down the corridor:” Learn it off by heart for prep. Test tomorrow afternoon. If you’re not word-perfect, I’ll give you Robert Browning to learn – and you won’t like that!”

This was homework most of us loved – those who found 14 lines easy to memorise on the bus coming to school. A few struggled but Kenny had a humane instinct. When he ‘randomly’ selected  victims to recite the following day  he seemed only to alight on the clever cloggies or the lazy buggers. The vulnerable few were left to sweat without being exposed. Once this ritual had passed, I recall him ‘working the poem over’ with us, like a boxer giving an expert mauling to a supine opponent. The Petrarchan sonnet form; octave/sestet; iambic pentameter; rhyme scheme; assonance; historical and classical reference and so it went on. He put the jigsaw together for us, punctuating explanation with: Newton! What have I just said? or I can smell smoke. Is it me? or What’s the test score Dowdeswell, I can see you’re listening to the radio in your desk.

We gave him fealty once we knew what it was and he invited us to write our own sonnets about feeling the excitement of a piece of writing, as Keats had done. Most of 2B  bards – for that was what he now called us (very temporarily)- penned clunky, hastily-scribbled 14liners about Roy of the Rovers comic-stories of soccer derring-do or mused about the lyrics of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Kenny minded not. He sort of knew we’d got the idea, that our notion of what poetry was and how it could be enjoyed, had moved on a notch or two. And much as I have travelled in the realms of gold in this life, I still owe that fealty to dear Ken Cripps.

Sometime around 1975 the process of discrediting the rote aspect of learning started. Of course parrot-memorising doesn’t mean ‘understanding’ but words and numbers and patterns repeated over and over again stick; they form a matrix of knowledge and connection in the brain that stimulates linkage, making sense of things intuitively, understanding at times without thinking. We cannot quantify, measure the treasure trove of our brain store. Most young people have rote-learned thousand upon thousand of song lyrics through melody and repetition. We still require lawyers, doctors, engineers and all manner of other professionals to rote-learn masses of knowledge to form the bedrock of their expertise; a sturdy springboard from which to bounce. Technology has encouraged the pendulum to move further towards the skill-based approach to learning. We can Google knowledge; Wikipedia knows all.

It’s a pity but it has been an inevitable shift. The problem is balance. When one approach or philosophy is overly favoured babies get thrown out with the bathwater. So much elegant, dramatic, beautiful language has not been lodged in the brains of the young of today. For many of us who were forced to commit much to memory there is a survival kit of words for many occasions and moods lodged somehere up top. There’s a reason why we call it learning by heart. Add to this the hymns we know, the literature of the Bible and Aesop and the rest. Of course the good old nursery rhyme still features in the poetic lexicon of the modern child but I hope that educational innovation won’t drive out some of the memory learning that can just be done for its own sake and kept in one’s personal store for life – to be dusted down, occasionally, when Bards in Fealty to Apollo spring to mind.

2 Responses to “Bards in fealty”

  1. John Trotman May 22, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Hi Sorro

    Excellent post, again. Thanks. We need a few Kens again (minus the hair stroking, naturally). One of my favourite poems of Keats, which is saying a lot. In fact, the gazing at the Pacific, ‘silent upon a peak in Darien’ moment he describes in reading Chapman mirrors closely one’s own experience of reading Keats’ response to Chapman’s reading of Homer Mirrors within mirrors. Exotic and lovely, still.


  2. Martin Creasey June 21, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    I can still quote this word-perfect to this day so terrified was I of being one of those selected to recite the homework. Never really understood it at the time but my favourite bit was about the eagle-eyed but rather portly Cortez, gazing around at his men like a lunatic. Now he must have been a character to reckon with.

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