The Conflict Of Rhyme And Reason



Teach your children poetry; it opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.


Sir Walter Scott


One of my clearest memories in primary school was of writing a poem. It must have been my first. I loved poetry because it was fun and fascinating on a variety of levels, but it had never occurred to me that I could compose one. It was at this season of the year. Our teacher was a stern but well-loved Catholic. She kept a cane clipped to the side of her desk and did not scruple to whip the living daylights out of its forbearing oak to rally us to order. One day, she challenged the class to write a poem on the topic of Christmas. At that age, we did not associate free verse with what was commonly called 'poetry' and we instinctively resorted to well-recognised forms. My offering is still branded upon memory:

In winter, Father Christmas comes

Across the pure white snow,

He bring us toys

For girls and boys

And other things for show.

Not exactly genius in embryo, but I was relieved to be able to step up to the plate, despite a niggling dissatisfaction. I got a 'B' for this effort and was inclined to feel that the mark was fair. I had struggled over the balance of syllables, requiring 'snow' to need two adjectives, or at least two stresses, that 'white white' would not do and that truth decreed snow was not always 'pure white'. I knew the last line was feeble. But it rhymed. And Christmas was not just about gifts, it was about a transient sparkle and magic that gave way to January gloom and the ailments adrenalin and excitement had succeeded in fending off. What a brutal awakening to discover Santa Claus was a myth! I still wanted the golden mists of dreaming. I never did believe he came down the chimney, but the goblet drained of ginger wine and the abandoned plate of mince pie crumbs somehow seemed sounder evidence of a visitation than the filled stocking and parcels. The benevolent guest hadn't passed me by. Oh, wide-eyed wonderment!

One verse that teacher taught us to recite and inflect was taken from John Keats' poem There Was A Naughty Boy.

There was a naughty boy,

And a naughty boy was he,

He ran away to Scotland

The people for to see-

There he found

That the ground

Was as hard,

That a yard

Was as long,

That a song

Was as merry,

That a cherry

Was as red-

That lead

Was as weighty

That fourscore

Was as eighty,

That a door

Was as wooden

As in England-

So he stood in his shoes

And he wondered,

He wondered,

He stood in his shoes

And he wondered.

It's a piece that beguiles and is packed with philosophy. In entertaining, it sums up an ideal of universal brotherhood and of feet being grounded where they are before striking out for pastures new.

A year later, we went on to learn by heart the First Psalm, and the greater portion of The Pied Piper of Hamelin which was proudly recited at a concert. The cadences of Browning's august tale were forged on an anvil of immemorial wisdom, at once ironic and whimsical, vivid, cautionary, authoritative, and ultimately satisfying as it wended a path to a secret kingdom lost to the adult realm with all its ducking and weaving. If anything served as a spiritual metaphor, that did. We had been taught Greensleeves, too, which we sang at the same concert. We had little idea about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, knew nothing about the stained gowns of courtesans who had rolled in the grass, or that green was deemed the colour of light and love. Yet the strange melodic minors of Tudor music, the suave lament describing unrequited passion in the face of lavish gifts and protestations of chivalry, belonged to the landscape of a past we sensed was ours. We were part of a tapestry that was bigger than we were.

Nor did we need calculators, because multiplication tables were rehearsed parrot-fashion and, though they didn't rhyme, the phonic word patterns became engraved in the mind's ear for ever.

From these and the nursery nonsense inspired by snippets of history, we found our bearings in a material world where rhymes encapsulated lore and fact and were hoarded for reference.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived (of Henry VIII's wives)

I before E except after C

Sun before seven, rain before eleven

In 1492 Columbus sailed the sea so blue

When George IV from earth descended, thank God the reign of Georges ended

The goat that reeks on yonder hill has browsed all day on chlorophyll

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise

Children have a fine-tuned ear for metre. They are closest to the pulse of the earth. They remember the welling blood and throb of the womb, the predictable scansion of a moon exerting its influence on the inner waters, as yet not drowned out by the cacophany of a universe whose multiple agendas vie for attention. Children know things the world is anxious to ween them from. Rhyme becomes uncoupled in the labyrinth of reason and expediency.

Maybe if that lyric sense could be retained to keep the soul grounded as it grows, there would be no urge to punctuate green life with bullets.