Parroting Poetry

Robert Butler relays a conversation he had with a painter who, as a boy, studied with W.H. Auden when the poet taught at a prep school in the early 1930s:

[Auden] would insist that the boys in his class learn poem after poem by heart. Even parrot-fashion. Auden said it didn’t matter whether they understood them. If they learnt the poems now, they would not forget them and maybe, later in life, they would understand them. “It’s true,” the painter told me, “I can still remember them.”

He was sitting in an armchair, in front of his gas fire, wearing a black velvet jacket and a silvery tie that couldn’t have been more loosely knotted. Quickly and softly, he began to recite Milton’s sonnet “On his Blindness”:

When I consider how my light is spent
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide

These were lines that he had memorised for Auden 75 years before. He went on:

And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account…

The elderly painter’s comment on those words: “I still don’t understand it. But I understand it a bit better.”