Recitation and The Charge of the Always Right Brigade

The Catholic Church, which, way back in the seventies, seemed very keen on the Irish side of my family’s fealty, implanted a number of things into my long-term memory. Many of us will be able to recall and recite ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but, I believe, it is only Catholics who have ‘Hail Mary’ off to pat. Like all prayers and hymns and most elements of glorifying some historical tradition of the oppression of one set of people by another, it is a funny old beast. At the age of seven, I always felt there was something not quite right about being forced to recite, “blessed is the fruit of thy womb” five times after having sat in a dark box and having been, again, forced, to confess to sometimes invented sins, and it is clear that having seven-year-old kid admitting to being one of the “sinners” through mouthing a script that has them as so is designed as practice at submission and intended to in some way destroy self regard and the idea of the self having agency.

I also learned bits and pieces of the Latin mass, some of which I can still parrot, not a word of which I have ever understood.

It seems there is a substantial history – a tradition, if you will – of power’s use of memorization as a tool for coercing children into certain forms of belief: chiefly those that involve obedience and submission. In schools, and with specific reference to the way in which speech is organised and what sorts are valourised, that tradition has a name: it is entitled the Augustan Oral Tradition. The Augustan tradition is what we would associate with traditionalist approaches to speech in the classroom: it includes highly stylized versions of debate with specific structures and the memorization and recitation of canonical texts. It is very much favoured by Conservative voices probably because, like the Catholic Church before them, it is a key means of imprinting a belief system on children. Gove had it that memorizing poetry was to “own a great work of art [that we have selected as upholding a certain view of the world] forever”.

One of engines driving the value being reascribed to recitation by educational institutions, is, in the spirit of resurrecting a ‘superior’ past, connecting students to the ownership of ‘high’ culture, and there was a recent study of recitation that concluded not only that, “the most popular poems [are] drawn from quite a conservative position, and [are] nearly all by long-dead, canonical poets.”[1]

From thence, onto the position of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ on the AQA syllabus: it is not a poem I’m overly keen on as, despite it being metrically interesting, and you can teach the meter of the first line by getting them to recite “anapest, anapest, anapest, trochee”, it seems, on the surface, a piece of jingoistic war mongering with little comment, aside from the horrific, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die” on the morality of war or on the social class of the people sent to their death. That is not to say there are not subtleties. As poet Laureate, Tennyson had to be careful and the “someone had blundered” line, whilst not locating who that someone was, allows us to consider that it was the officer class who screwed up and the men who died as a result. Overall though, despite the fact that it seems to exist to glorify wars fought on foreign soils (and acknowledging that the war in question was battling Russian expansionism), I think it probably deserves its place on the curriculum as it allows us to examine the fact that those giving the orders were gentry, Lords, in fact; along with British arrogance (the poem glorifies a charge (or, perhaps, more generously, the men) in which British soldiers were decimated); and whether blindly obeying orders from those above you in the social space with no thought for your own safety is the path to a long and fruitful life.

We have recently been given a very useful teaching tool by a school in the East end (at which I did my first teaching practice and whose brilliant students and staff 25 years ago caused me to dedicate the first seven years of my career to the kids of that area). In acting out their recitation of the poem on camera, with a gentleman fronting the performance with quite incredible energy and using the charming and potentially useful technique of using actions to aid the students’ memorization, they have generously given the profession and our English classes a valuable tool for debate.

The question is, what do the students get out of reciting this poem en masse? Perhaps it would surprise people that I can see some of the positives. Firstly, they get the incredible vibe of a shared experience. Given that acts of mass worship are difficult in multi cultural areas where everyone is of a different religion or none at all, this joy in belonging to something should not be written off. It is immensely powerful. And if we are to have acts of mass worship nowadays, I’d rather it be the worship of the work of poets than the proclamations of priests. Secondly, and this, I think, is entirely reasonable, the poem is on the AQA curriculum, and it is possible that in an exam they need to compare it to a printed poem and have to learn quotations. In which case, rather than learn this bit here and there, why not learn the whole bloody thing? Once we’ve done that, perhaps we might drill down into why the poem was so successful and how the complexities and technicalities of the meter were a key part of why it was so easy for people to memorise. There’s quite a lot to list on the credit side.  

In terms of the debits, the arguments are less concerned with utility and more to do with the hidden curriculum. As with my own knowledge of the Latin mass, being able to recite something does not necessarily mean you understand it though I accept the two things are not mutually exclusive. There is also the question as to why a Conservative view of education (the one prevalent today) might want children to memorize colonial era poems and claim that this has given children the cultural capital they will need to converse with the bankers at Coutts whom they’ll meet on their rare trips for a night out at the opera: an argument with so many holes it would perform usefully as a sieve. There is the patrician element of “here is our ‘high’ culture; it is better than yours; chuck your own in the bin; yours is a prison of disadvantage; there is only one valid culture; learn it; it is white and male.” Chief amongst these, though, is that being made by teachers in positions of authority to recite a poem which highlights how blind obedience to authority has mortal consequences, and this is somewhat of an understatement, is perhaps more ironic than is comfortable.  

The assertions of traditionalists that this is great practice in action are too close in tone to the assertions of some religious people as to why God exists – “Because he bloody does, right!” And it’s a shame we can't have a balanced debate that acknowledges that there is good and bad in everything and, while this practice may plausibly be useful, there are other, more worrying, sides to it and that these deserve a bit more consideration than, “you’re just wrong”. There is much I find Orwellian about children being taught to recite colonial era poems. There is teaching children to think, and there is teaching children to conform to a worldview that everything they are told by their ‘betters’ is correct, and they will only succeed if they adapt to accept that that view is the sole one worthy of respect. Education is increasingly of the wrongheaded view that it exists to elicit a version of conformity, cultural or otherwise and, as such, is becoming a poor satire of itself controlled by people who are not sufficiently intelligent to understand this.

It would, I think, be a lovely balancing gesture, for a school to do the same thing with John Agard’s ‘Checking Out Me History’. Altogether now,

“Dem tell me

Dem tell me

Wha dem want to tell me

Bandage up me eye with me own history

Blind me to my own identity.”


[1] David Whitley Poetry and Memory Project, Cambridge University

Added Fri, 24 Sep 2021 12:31

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