I’ve just finished reading Other Men’s Flowers, an anthology of poetry selected by A. P. Wavell, also known as Field-Marshal Earl Wavell. I can’t pretend to have read all of them; some of them really aren’t to my taste and he does seem to favour the works of Kipling. However, it is a wonderful collection and I’m delighted that I managed to find it in Hall’s Bookshop for the princely sum of £2.50.
The anthology was first published in 1944, when Wavell was Viceroy of India (I had to restrain myself from using an exclamation mark then) so you probably already have an idea of what this collection is like. For myself, I have a strange hankering for this England now gone, when we appreciated our literary culture so much that we had to learn our great poems by rote. If you ever get your hands on a copy of this book, then I would recommend reading the introductions; Wavell was a remarkable person, the beneficiary of an excellent public school education, and compiled this collection from memory. Yes, he knew them all off by heart!
Wavell was a self-confessed ‘declaimer’ of poetry and apparently enjoyed reciting these poems on horseback and while driving in his motor car:
“Practically all the verse in this collection is capable of being declaimed, it seems to me a function of poetry that it should be so. […] It is one of my charges against modern poetry that it does not easily lend itself to memorizing or declamation. The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, has stored in his prodigious memory much poetry which he declaims on apt occasion…” Lord Wavell
I’m with him on this and think that school children should be made to recite poetry and learn it by heart. I used to teach my daughter The Owl and the Pussy Cat and You Are Old, Father William on the way to school when she was very little. She enjoyed it so much that she had no idea my purpose was didactic.
You may be surprised that my views on this subject are so closely aligned with Peter Hitchens’ brand of Conservatism, but I never received a proper education and therefore understand, quite painfully, what it is that I have missed out on.
As for this collection, my favourite Edward Lear poems are there, plus some new ones I’d never tried before, such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. My favourite is Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, with which I was already acquainted, due to my ongoing love affair with David Niven (in my dreams, obviously!).
“Andy Marvell, what a marvel.”