The Magazine

Reason for Rhyme

The lost art of memorizing (and reciting) verse.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Overall, Robson’s book has no single “thesis,” but branches out in so many challenging directions that such a unifying concept would be a simplification. Of the biographical, familial anecdotes she brings to bear, one is about a young girl in an elementary school in London’s Bethnal Green (a very poor district) who stands up to recite “He fell among thieves,” an imperial poem of sensational violence by a now-forgotten poet, Sir Henry Newbolt. Did she and her classmates ever think about the difference between their cramped lives and the heroic glory celebrated in the poem? The reciter was Eileen Adams, Robson’s grandmother, “sharp as a tack and at the top of her class,” who would leave school at 14 to work in an East End sweatshop, marry at 20, and then contract the tuberculosis that kept her a semi-invalid throughout her life.

In another scenario, Robson imagines herself as a student in a public elementary school, sometime between 1870 and 1920, when she would perhaps have memorized a fine ballad, “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” by another forgotten poet, Thomas Campbell. In fact, she writes, her education contained no recitation of poems, and certainly not one as “popular” as the Campbell poem, which she did not discover until she was in her forties. After quoting the ballad in full, she doesn’t make the case that it is an unjustly neglected poem, nor one that everyone should know: “Instead, I will just say this: I would have liked to have had ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ with me for all those years.”  

Having spent more decades than Robson did without reading, let alone memorizing, “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” I am grateful to Robson for its belated discovery.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.