At the chalkface: By heart

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

The older I’ve got the more relevant it has become. It has served me well for, among things Brexit, tragedies, Nigel Farage, MRI scans, Donald Trump, strokes, and pretty much anything Michael Gove has ever said

Speaking at the Hay Festival, Salman Rushdie lamented the “lost art” of memorising poetry. “I call it learning by heart because it affects the heart.” Indeed. It pulses in your blood and makes the heart sing. It goes deep.

My old English teacher “Min” Hills was very big on it. A sensitive and fabulously miserable man, he urged us to learn loads, mainly wrist-slashing, melancholic stuff like Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth. “It will serve you well in later life,” he quipped lugubriously. We were compelled to recite it – in our shorts.
“It is a tale. Told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

I didn’t know what on earth it meant, but it sounded fantastic and has afforded much comfort on the increasing number of occasions I’ve needed a little blanket nihilism.

It’s still the most thrilling speech I’ve ever heard. When “Min” told us that “syllable of recorded time” referred to the “silly bell of a clock” I thought Shakespeare was God and up there with Eddie Cochran – and it impressed girls, who thought we were very deep.

The older I’ve got the more relevant it has become. It has served me well for, among things Brexit, tragedies, Nigel Farage, MRI scans, Donald Trump, strokes, and pretty much anything Michael Gove has ever said. My repertoire also includes Doctor Faustus’ dying speech, Shelley’s transcendent Ozymandias and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me” – surely the best line ever. It’s all in that “kindly”.

It is what Seamus Heaney calls “the voltage of language”. And, of course, it is invincibly unmeasurable, Mr Ofsted – all that useless beauty.

Even Nigel Molesworth was required to learn the “Tomorrow” speech. He didn’t of course. Homework not done, memory shot, paper darts bouncing off his skull, he stumbled woefully through it, somehow confusing it with one of Hamlet’s speeches – “Life,” he offered, Erm... erm... “tis an unweeded syllable.”

It probably is. Sublime. Surreal. Invincibly glorious nonsense – and perhaps the only time Shakespeare has been improved.

Poetry can stop the white static of the modern world, that quotidian racket with its too often pusillanimous, lily-livered, etiolated, bloodless, lying, corporate and meretricious cant. It won’t let you down. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” writes TS Eliot, wisely. The more you recite them the deeper they get. When all else fails and fades, you’ve got these magical incantations – words, cadence, rhythm and image to run along the blood. They are memory. Indelible. A “lost art” we would do well to bring back in schools everywhere.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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