Stepping outside our house the other evening, I saw the moon riding high among turbulent clouds and I spoke out loud the line from Alfred Noyes’s ‘The Highwayman’: ‘The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’
I’ve just looked up the poem and what a poem it is, with a terrific driving rhythm. Strange really that it has been regarded as suitable for children: it is full of violence and eroticism. But really what it got me thinking about was the way it came so readily to my mind, and the way that our minds are furnished by what we read as children and young people.
There is not much learning poetry by rote in school these days, and there wasn’t a great deal more when I was a child, but I did learn some poems by heart , because I loved them. I can still recite Wordsworth ‘Daffodils.’ At one point I knew most if not all of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ too (never dreaming that I’d one day write about it in an academic book). Later as an undergraduate I learned Herbert’s ‘Vertue,’ because I wanted to have it with me wherever I went. There are a lot more poems that I remember in snatches or maybe just a line or two.
Nowadays everything is accessible through Google and one can always be connected to the internet, so there is no need to remember anything. But, still, there is great pleasure in suddenly being reminded – as I was the other night – of a piece of poetry and knowing that you are in contact with the mind of another person – one that perhaps lived centuries ago.