Loss of words' worth

Click to follow
Last week my middle sort-of stepson, Mull, who is 18, flew off to Transkei to start a year's voluntary work, arranged through Project Trust. Along with his Eric Clapton T-shirts, an array of medical supplies and several dozen tapes of his favourite bands, he took four books: two novels about South Africa, the Beatles Songbook and a biography of the Beatles.

Mull is an extremely bright chap. This is his 'gap year' before he goes to university on the strength of three cracking A- levels, to read medieval history. As a not-even stepmother, I know better than to press Great Literature upon him . . . although a year without television offers a heaven-sent opportunity to read Trollope, Dickens, or George Eliot. My own son drove from the north to the south of Africa six years ago armed with the complete works of Jane Austen, but admitted later that he was scarcely halfway through the Sahara before he swapped them with other travellers in favour of some easier author. He claims to have read them first.

I was talking about this to a friend who teaches Eng Lit. He said: 'I have the impression that reading poetry was superseded round about the time of the Beatles in favour of knowing the lyrics of pop songs. Practically none of my students, except the very brightest, is familiar with English poetry beyond the barest requirements of the syllabus. As for knowing it by heart . . . ]'

At this point I clamber fearlessly on to my pontificating oldie soapbox to declare that this, if true, is a Very Great Loss. For however 'wicked', in Mull-parlance, the Beatles and Eric Clapton may be, when it comes to describing the palpitations of the human heart, they do not compare with the Metaphysical poets or Keats, let alone Shakespeare's sonnets.

'Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes' is sweetly evocative, especially when you add - as you can scarcely help doing - its lazy, lilting tune; but it is not to be spoken in the same breath as 'Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere' or (one John Donne makes you hungry for another) 'Let us love nobly, and live, and add again/Years and years unto years, till we attain/To write threescore: this is the second of our reign.'

Like the emotion in those lines, great poetry lasts a lifetime, whereas the pleasures of remembered pop lyrics, once you are over 35, are largely those of wistful nostalgia, because the love they celebrate is always that of the young. (Yes, I know 'Will you still need me/ When I'm 64?' but what else?)

When it comes to putting the inexpressible - the throes of erotic passion - into words, 'I feel like a virgin, touched for the very first time' by Madonna is not a patch on To His Mistress, Going to Bed by John Donne.

It is no defence to say that Mull may come to the poets in his own good time. So he may: but he is unlikely to learn them. The adolescent human brain is astonishingly retentive. When I was in my teens, memorising several dozen lines of verse was no problem; and I still have much of my favourite poetry by heart. (The retrieval system is not infallible, but it usually comes up with the goods bar the odd missing word, which then torments me until the unconscious eventually delivers it.)

Have the lyrics of pop songs improved beyond all recognition in the 30 years since the Beatles began? No; if anything the reverse. The lyrics of the Thirties and Forties were arguably tenderer, wittier, more articulate, closer to emotion and truth than those of today.

What has changed is the way English literature is taught. It seems - I am reluctant to generalise, since teachers are many and various and the brilliant enthusiast will disprove any rule - but it seems that teachers today feel that literature must ingratiate itself if it is to appeal to their impatient pupils. They dare not risk the difficult ('I want you all to learn the first twelve stanzas of Horatius at the Bridge from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome'), let alone the obscure. Besides, how can anyone memorise poetry with a Sony Walkman susurrating in their ears?

It is one of my deepest-held tenets that opinions are not facts; and yet I am certain that poetry matters more than pop lyrics. Mull, in remote Transkei, will doubtless be much consoled by the Beatles Songbook; but at the cost of not knowing the incomparable consolations of, say, the Penguin Book of Metaphysical Verse. Never mind. I'll send it to him for Christmas.