In which I show off about showing off

Last Saturday night, I took part in a talent competition (I didn’t win.  Congratulations to two lovely dance troupes, and an excellent saxophonist, who did.)  It was very well-organised, the proceeds went to charity, and a good time was had by all.  There was cake.

Usually at similar events, I recite poetry, but on this occasion I branched out to show off my completely useless ability to name any chapter in the “Harry Potter” oeuvre, if given a book and chapter number (there are 198 plus epilogue) *.  Once again I was surprised (although of course flattered) by the number of people who think that learning things, poems or lists, by heart is prodigiously impressive and difficult.

For centuries, this was the major way for children to learn. Not many decades ago, reciting was a normal method of showing off at parties. And one assumes that all the New Testament writers/speakers, including Jesus, when quoting the Old Testament, were doing so from their well-stocked memories.  Children are still taught to memorise the Koran.

When I was nine, I had a teacher who seemed very old. (She could remember attending school on Christmas Day in her childhood, because in Scotland New Year was the bigger holiday.)  Her teaching methods included getting us to learn short poems once a week.   I only remember one of these.

A bigger influence was my mother.  In the days before tapes and ipods, she was the in-car entertainment, and on drives from Scotland to Lincolnshire she would recite a very long poem, written in the 19th century as a retelling of a legendary incident from Ancient Rome.  (When Rome was under attack by a huge army, three heroes defended the single bridge into the city while the townsfolk destroyed it behind them; the last man then swam home in his armour.)  She said her father had known it also, so I naturally decided it was a family tradition, and when I was a teenager I learned it one summer holiday.  One of my brothers also knows large chunks (and spent some of a recent Italian holiday identifying places mentioned in it) and it was not my idea to recite part at my mother’s funeral last year.

This poem is “Horatius”, one of Macauley’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”, and it begins:

Lars Porsena of Clusium

By the nine gods he swore

That the great house of Tarquin

Should suffer wrong no more…

It is 70 verses long, and takes 15-20 minutes to say.  I have not dared to recite it in full to anyone except the long-suffering Mark…

Once you have learned “Horatius”, poems like “The Owl and the Pussycat” hold no terrors.  Admittedly I have practised and “trained” (no, I do not have a photographic memory) but learning things is not difficult, and once done it provides something to exercise the brain in a bus queue, in bed at night, or in a dentist’s waiting room.

Old-fashioned poems, with RHYME, RHYTHM and STORY, are of course easiest.  There are a lot of excellent poems by AA Milne, (“The King’s Breakfast” or “Binker”) which are easy and fun and not unbearably soppy.  After all, we all know huge numbers of song lyrics, and is there so much difference?

Compared to the amazing skill of being able to play the piano two-handed in public and sing at the same time, which several people did on Saturday night, a talent of which I am in absolute awe, reciting poetry is surely a doddle.

Love from the PPI Blogger


* For example, and at random, the 6th chapter of the 6th book is called “Draco’s Detour”.  You really needed to know that, didn’t you?

  • Malachi Malagowther

    29th March 2016 at 5:37 pm Reply

    I wonder what Lars Porsenius would have thought if he had known that a poem partly about him would still be recited by people two and a half thousand years later. Assuming he was a real person it’s unlikely that Macauley knew very much about him except that he was on the losing side. I think most of us would identify more strongly with Horatius as the main hero but he seems a rather stereotypical hero and you are left wondering about whether he had any brothers or sisters or if his parents were still alive and what their reactions would be. Of course if there was a Daily Telegraph at the time it would probably be investigating him to see if he had misappropriated public funds. “Just where did he get the money for his shiny new breastplate?” Perhaps there is scope for the author of website to move away from Ragaris for a time and write about the heroes of ancient Rome. There is lots of scope for making them more human.

  • Matthew Perry

    29th March 2016 at 6:35 pm Reply

    Well, I’m impressed. Not that it is possible but that you actually did it – learning the poetry that is, knowing the titles of all the chapters of Harry Potter is just sad – a bit like some of the obscure things I know from military history or chemistry.

  • Judith Renton

    29th March 2016 at 7:51 pm Reply

    I still remain seriously impressed at your feat of memory at the talent night. My only claim to having memorised something really well was due to listening to the radio in the 70s at school, during the lunch time, to see if Donny Osmond had ascended to Number One! Having been caught by the English teacher, a really ‘good sort’ we had to memorise Shylock’s soliloquy for the next morning to recite individually to her. Fear of the impending Detention that would ensue spurred me on to be word perfect…and I remember it still. Signor Antonio, many a time and oft in the Rialto…etc etc

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