When I look back to my own schooling, in what was by the standards of the time a fairly run-of-the-mill state grammar school, I am gratefully amazed at the quality of teaching and the subject knowledge of many of the teachers. They were certainly of a calibre that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in the state sector these days. Indeed, the rot set in (even in this school, which escaped being comprehensivised) when the generation that taught me retired. My old friend, mentor and English teacher - let us call him K - handed over his department in the mid-70s to a younger man who was a perfectly capable and effective teacher, but, to K's bemusement, had no apparent interest in or enjoyment of his subject, knew no more of it than he needed to, and read little beyond the syllabus. By contrast K lived and breathed English (and French and Italian) literature; he had more close, detailed knowledge of Shakespeare than anyone I ever knew (including at university) - likewise Milton, and Dante, and, above all, Keats, whose great odes and much else he knew by heart. As today is John Keats's birthday (1795) - and as it's the kind of glorious sunny, unseasonably warm day when here in the city I feel unusually pent, let's have this fine sonnet:
To one who has been long in city pent,
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.