Poetry or Doggerel?

Many years ago when my children were young, I used to read and recite poetry to them, rather than nursery rhymes.  One of their favourites was Vitiae Lampada, Sir Henry Newbolt’s famous poem.  Do you know this one?

“There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game..”

For the rest of this poem click here.

In Britain in the late 19th century and the early 20th century there was  a blind devotion to Britain and her Empire and yet there was an ethos that the playing of the game was better than winning.   There was also the powerful social phenomenon of the ‘Basically Sound Chap’.  Rudyard Kipling was one,  so was John Buchan and so of course, was Henry Newbolt.  This poem then might almost be regarded as the anthem of the Basically Sound Chaps.  The stiff upper lip was his trademark but today the BSC would probably be regarded as politically incorrect; he had no female equivalent and he often did not get along very well with women.

When I first tried my hand at poetry, it was very simply rhyming verse and in fact I considered it (and still do) doggerel.

Doggerel?  “Doggerel is a derogatory term for verse considered of little literary value. The word probably derived from dog, suggesting either ugliness, puppyish clumsiness, or unpalatability (as in food fit only for dogs). “Doggerel” is attested to have been used as an adjective since the fourteenth century and a noun since at least 1630.” via Wikipedia.

My first attempt at writing poetry followed a wedding in a small ski resort here in New Zealand.  It was headed The Party with Apologies to Noel Coward”  And it started

“We went to this marvellous party
All manner of people were there
We drove through the rain
To toast Robin and Elaine
A chance to let down our hair…”

I went on to name all of the people who were present that weekend and if I say so myself, it was quite clever.  But it was definitely doggerel.

When we arrived back in New Zealand from a very brief sojourn in Montreal, my children each went back to the schools they had attended before and quickly settled back into the life of New Zealand children.  However there was one person that made this re-immersion difficult and that was a teacher at my son’s school.

Having asked the children to write an essay on what they had done during the school holidays, she shot down my very young son (he was only about 7 or 8 years old) by saying that they weren’t interested in his tales about travelling to far distant places.  How cruel is that from a school teacher.

Another time, she asked the boys to tell her the name of their favourite poem.  Imagine my son’s dismay when she dismissed Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitiae Lampada as doggerel.  He of course, didn’t know this word and was very upset.

It transpired that this young woman teacher had chosen to teach in a boys only school even though she really didn’t like young boys.  Go figure, as we say now.

So if this great poem is doggerel, then maybe I am in good company with my scratchings.

….I’ve been to a marvellous party
I must say the fun was intense;
We all had to do
What the people we knew
Might be doing a hundred years hence.
We talked about growing old gracefully,
And Elsie—who’s seventy-four—
Said, “A) It’s a question of being sincere,
And B) If you’re supple you’ve got nothing to fear”—
Then she swung upside-down from a chandelier!
And I couldn’t have liked it more!
From “I’ve Been To a Marvellous Party”
Sir Noel Coward, English playwright, director, actor
and singer 1889 – 1973.

8 responses to “Poetry or Doggerel?

  1. What is this “spirit” in the blogosphere that puts similar thoughts into our heads? I am just in the middle of writing a post on poetry, and you have clearly been touched with the same brush or feather! I love this, Judith, and totally agree with you on exposing young children to poetry. I left my infant-class teacher speechless when I was six by reciting ‘Abu Ben Adhem? including dramatic gestures, and my daughter grew up with Old Possum’s Practical Cats long before they became a musical. Thanks for sharing!


    • This has happened on several occasions Cat and I am constantly amazed at how we think of the same things at the same time.
      I went on to recite poetry to my grandchildren. Hopefully they will remember some of it as they age. Thanks for the comment. 🙂


  2. That teacher was doggeral. What a nimwit for treating your son so poorly. To me poetry (as well as other writings) are in the eyes of the beholder. It means different things to each of us and we all have a different reaction. Good for you for keeping at it. It’s why I keep on writing.


  3. What a provincial woman that teacher! How many others lay casualty to her small mindedness?
    My mother loved to recite “The Swing” and “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson…perfect,playful poems for children.


    • Do teachers realise the influence they have on young minds?
      I love it that your mother recited these poems to you. No doubt you remember most it not all of the words. I also used to sing music hall (vaudeville) songs to my children and grandchildren. 🙂


  4. Life would be a lot more fun with a lot more marvellous parties. Thanks for sharing these. 🙂


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