At the beginning of the calendar year, I set myself a challenge: to learn six poems by heart. This certainly has been a challenge, as committing often complex passages to memory has tested my mettle! However, the task was completed this half term.
I didn’t set out with a plan to choose certain poems to learn, but have found myself gravitating towards the natural world. The learning of each poem has tended to occur when I have been walking, principally on the South Downs and on my way to work in the morning. I have found the process challenging, but rewarding, and now find the act of recitation contributes towards my personal downtime and well-being.
The poems I have learnt are:
- ‘Seascape’ by W.H.Auden: inspired by the inscription on a bench above our house on the South Downs
- ‘The Storm’ by Shamus Heaney: recommended by BPS’s Head of English
- ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins: a favourite poet from my A’ Level studies
- ‘Leisure’ by W.H.Davies: a reminder to be still in a busy world
- ‘The Year of the Whale’ by George Mackay Brown: which describes the tough reality of life in the Orkney Islands in the past – Orkney is my family home.
The final poem I chose to learn was Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorem est’. This was chosen not just because it is an amazingly powerful and visceral piece of writing, but because BPS is sharing its centenary with the end of The Great War which witnessed amongst the most devastating slaughter of man on man in history. Initially drafted when Owen was on home leave from the trenches recovering from shell shock, the poem describes the brutal reality of war through the experience of a soldier caught up in a chlorine gas attack. Its poignancy is heightened by the fact that Owen himself was killed just one week before the Armistice, on November 4th, 1918. His mother received a telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day itself, even as the church bells marking the end of the war were ringing in her home town of Shrewsbury.
In writing the poem, Owen did not intend to betray or belittle the many brave soldiers wounded or injured in the war; he wished to convey a sense of its brutality to those who might be tricked into believing the title of the poem (a quote from the Roman poet Horace) that to die in war is ‘dulce et decorem’: ‘sweet and honourable’. Owen in fact won one of the highest awards for bravery: the Military Cross.
The Military Cross was also won by a visitor to BPS this week: Major General Dair Farrar-Hockley. He won his medal for conspicuous bravery during the Battle of Goose Green in The Falklands War. He conveyed a sense of the reality of war and the unique comradeship that binds soldiers together. Perhaps most moving part of his visit of all were two things: the photo he showed of British medical staff tending to wounded Argentine soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the battle and the hug he gave, after his talk, to our Argentine Spanish teacher, Mrs Gallelligo.
Stories of war told a century apart remind us of the bravery of those who have played their part in attempting to mend a broken world. They remind us, too, that we should remember the peace that we should all strive to achieve and the bridges we should seek to build in our community of nations.