~ Posted by Robert Butler, February 14th 2013

Should we learn poems by heart? The British government thinks so, which is why the Department of Education has set up "Poetry by Heart", a competition that challenges pupils and students to learn and recite poems.

Last night I was talking to a painter, now in his mid-80s, who told me that when he was eight he had been sent away to a prep school in the Malvern Hills, where one of the teachers was W.H. Auden. (This was in the early 30s, when Auden spent five years teaching after leaving Oxford with a third-class degree.) Auden would make the pupils write poems and the painter remembers writing the first line of a poem, "Moles live in holes", and then finding that he couldn't think of a second line. Auden told him to stop there. He liked its lack of pretension. He made sure the four-word poem was published in the school magazine. 

He also said that Auden would insist that the boys in his class learn poem after poem by heart. Even parrot-fashion. Auden said it didn't matter whether they understood them. If they learnt the poems now, they would not forget them and maybe, later in life, they would understand them. "It's true," the painter told me, "I can still remember them." 

He was sitting in an armchair, in front of his gas fire, wearing a black velvet jacket and a silvery tie that couldn't have been more loosely knotted. Quickly and softly, he began to recite Milton's sonnet "On his Blindness":

When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide

These were lines that he had memorised for Auden 75 years before. He went on:

And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...

He broke off. "I still don't understand it. But I understand it a bit better."

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life