Michael Barber, The Dragon Book of Verse - Slightly Foxed Issue 56

Sixty Years On

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Back in the days when I used to read to my son at bedtime I was very struck by something Janet Adam Smith said in her introduction to The Faber Book of Children’s Verse. You will find, she said, that poems you learn when you’re young remain with you far longer than those you learn later. So in addition to ‘giving pleasure now’, she hoped her collection would ‘stock up the attics of your mind with enjoyment for the future’.

Oddly enough it was thanks to my wife’s discovery recently in a real attic that I was able to test Miss Adam Smith’s theory. Nestling in a box full of bric-à-brac was her father’s copy of The Dragon Book of Verse, a book I had last opened about sixty years ago at my prep-school, where it was used for a weekly exercise called ‘Rep’. He had bought it second-hand for 2/6d during the year he spent at Oxford before being called up. Before that it had belonged to a boy at St Edward’s, Oxford, who had coloured in many of the quaint illustrations.

For some of you the Dragon Book will need no introduction. It is as redolent of the classroom as Kennedy’s Latin Primer, Marten and Carter’s history books and, on a lighter note, 1066 and All That and Down with Skool! But I wonder how many people could name the Dragon Book’s editors? They were both called Wilkinson, as indeed was the Worcester College don whose ‘valuable assistance’ they acknowledge in the Preface. So presumably they were all related? Well, no. Nor were the two editors lifelong colleagues. For while W. A. C. Wilkinson – always known as ‘Wilkie’ – spent thirty-four years at the Dragon prep-school, Noel Wilkinson taught there for only four years, leaving in 1935, the year the Dragon Book appeared.

What the Wilkinsons shared was a love of poetry and the urge to pass it on to their pupils in an unusually enlightened manner. Learning poetry, they believed, ‘should be a delight and not a dreary task’. So rather than forcing a form to learn long poems ‘week by week, verse by verse’, they suggested that ‘more often than not’ pupils should be allowed to choose for themselves which poems to learn. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case at my school, but I was one of the lucky ones for whom memorizing a poem – or an irregular verb – was not a struggle.

Understanding what one learnt was more of a challenge. But the Wilkinsons argued, correctly I think, that young people don’t have to understand a poem to appreciate its beauty. Take ‘The Owl Song’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost – as earthy, it now seems to me, as a peasant painting by Bruegel. Even then it struck a chord that was not dimin-ished by my failure to register that

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About the contributor

Michael Barber would like to thank Gay Sturt, the Dragon School’s archivist, for her help with this article.

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