Small and Scorching (March 2024)

I must warn you that today’s assembly waxes poetical – we get to other things, but its heart lies in poetry and we start with “The small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay,” which is taken from Cecil Day Lewis’ poem “Walking Away”. It’s a remarkable poem – one that competes for the title of my favourite and I suggest you look it out, and memorise it, and write it on a postcard to give to your parents, but it doesn’t take us where I want to go and so I’ll be hanging onto that orphaned line, out of context and dangling and thinking about that imagery that thinks about our humanity as a lump of clay, soft and pliable, that is hardened into something useful, not in one go, not naturally and easily, but through a series of trials, testing times that stiffen the sinews and straighten the backbone.

You may not have come across Cecil Day Lewis but he was, fairly briefly, the poet laureate between John Masefield and John Betjeman who both deserve, and have had, more assembly airtime than this – but for today here they are, and there they go. The Poet Laureate is a position appointed by the crown with no formal requirements beyond an expectation to produce poetry for official occasions. The current poet laureate in Simon Armitage who succeeded Carol Ann Dufy in 2019 – you may well have studied poems from both in secondary school. The longest serving poet laureate was Alfred Lord Tennyson who held the role for 42 years of Queen Victoria’s reign. As you’d expect, Tennyson was a prolific writer of well-turned lines and is one of the most frequently quoted of poets. One of his best-known pieces is The Lady of Shallot – a long poem with 20 stanzas in, mostly, iambic tetrameter with an aaaabcccb rhyme scheme. You may not have come across such a structure before so I’ll give you a stanza so you can count the iambs – that’s a pair of syllables, unstressed then stressed: diddum. This is from the middle of the poem.

She left the web, she left the loom

She made three paces thro' the room

She saw the water-flower bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

       She look'd down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack'd from side to side;

'The curse is come upon me,' cried

       The Lady of Shalott.

The structure of poetry, and particularly the metre, those iambs were the delight of Robert Bridges, a poet Laureate midway between Tennyson and Day Lewis and someone who also deserves more time than he’s getting today because I’ve not picked this poem for its structure, but because of the intertextuality – My delight is in the way that artists and writers inspire each other, feed on each other’s genius to create new wonders, not by plagiarism, mindlessly copying, but through play and cross reference. This poem tells part of the Arthurian legend (you can look it up), is inspired by a short piece of Italian prose that Tennyson stumbled across, and itself inspired the pre-Raphaelites, most memorably John William Waterhouse, to paint the story and the eponymous lady. It also inspired one of my favourite fictional characters, Anne Shirley, once of Green Gables, to act out the folorn lady’s last boat journey and nearly drown herself and gave Agatha Christie the title for a novel – from the stanza I just read you, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.


Whilst I’m being intertextual, I’m going to indulge one of my favourite distractions, which is to search the plays of Shakespeare for uses of words in the hope of some inspiration and maybe even that elusive prize, the hapax legomenon – a word that Shakespeare uses only once – “irresolute” for example. This comes up in a play that I don’t but have borrowed to weave into my Gold Stanford Scholars award now I’ve completed the Silver. The play is Henry VIII – a later piece that Shakespeare wrote in collaboration with John Fletcher – the speech is delivered by the Surveyor and the subject is the Duke of Buckingham who is being stitched up by Cardinal Wolsey.

He did discharge a horrible oath; whose tenor
Was,—were he evil used, he would outgo
His father by as much as a performance
Does an irresolute purpose.

Buckingham was a real man who was really executed for treason, and there’s a nice piece of intertextuality here, because one of the books I used in my Bronze Stanford Scholarship (I do hope you’re signed up to this programme – it’s a lot of fun), one of the books I used was “The Blanket of the Dark” which I picked up cheap and second hand, recognising the author John Buchan from his first world war spy stories. The Blanket of the Dark is a historical romance in which Buckingham’s son is offered the opportunity to lead a rebellion against Henry VIII and make himself king. It’s quite fun, but I wouldn’t urge you to rush out and read it – read Anne or Agatha or even those spy stories first. What I would urge you to do is to read serendipitously as well as strategically – to pick up something you stumble across because it looks fun rather than simply because you think it will be improving.

Strategy is important in life – and those who come to Diplomacy society on Friday evenings have been developing their strategic skills – if you’ve not tried it yet, then maybe next term is the opportunity to spend an hour a week plotting and planning. Just as important, though, is serendipity and what you make of it – the opportunities that fall into your path and can be picked up or left lying, the thoughts and recommendations you could follow up, or not. And so, whilst I encourage the year 13s to spend the next few weeks strategically, responding to feedback, identifying difficult bits of the exam syllabus, practising, testing, checking; I urge the year 12s to be open to serendipity – to read things that seem interesting, to memorise poetry because it’s beautiful without worrying about whether it’s useful, to explore your existing passions and find new ones. And, because this assembly is poetry heavy I have a couple of shout outs to the more prosaic among you, because one of the books in my Silver scholarship (recently completed, I wear my badge with pride) is An Immense World by Ed Yong in which he examines the strange universe of animal senses, from the whiskers of sea-lions to the pain-immunity of mole-rats to the echolocation of dolphins and the rather magical electrical senses of knife-fish. Actually, it’s not that prosaic – but it is a feast of biological delight. You should read it.

Following up on serendipity shapes your irresolute clay – it defines the kind of person you are, the skills you have, the people you meet. But it is the small, the scorching ordeals that fire it – and those can’t be planned for either. The ordeal that Day-Lewis is writing about is taking his son (Sean, not Daniel) to play in a football match – something I don’t suppose he thought would be difficult. The ordeals that shape your academic life are not the exams that you mark in your calendars in red pen, the assessment weeks you take soooo seriously, but the other days when you leave school at 4.10 with no good purpose in mind and could, instead return to the library for another hour or so; the essays when you hand in good enough for your poor teachers to mark rather than your very best; the opportunities to face down a really hard piece of maths that you pass up, waiting for someone else to tell you the answer. Talking of which, I came across a rather nice piece of maths the other day – looking through STEP questions after school with a couple of students who share my fascination with the most delightful of subjects – really, there should be crowds of you plying me with your half-finished problems. Where are you all? I digress. The problem concerned two circles of different sizes which, so long as they don’t overlap, have two common tangents that cross at a point we will call the focus. If we have the position vectors of the centres and the radii we can find the location of that focus, and if we give ourselves another circle, not overlapping and not the same size as either then we get two more foci. And the wonderful thing is that when we look at those foci we find… Well, it’s a bit of an ordeal to find out what we find. A small and scorching one – I encourage you to enjoy it.

All of our clay is irresolute – we all find it difficult to do the things we ought to do when they don’t come easily – we all get tired (especially doing STEP questions after school – golly my brain feels like wet clay when I do that), and none of us take all the opportunities that come our way, none of us follows up on everything we come across serendipitously. So we need firing – and I encourage you to look out for those small and scorching ordeals, the trials where you can test your moral and academic muscles, because it’s those decisions that fire your character, give you strength, it’s those moments, those minutes – which brings me to my last piece of quotation, my last enthusiasm to share with you today. This time we go to the world of musical theatre and the words of the remarkable Jonathan Larson.

How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year in the life?

Each minute is a challenge – when used it’s gone and you need to spend them on daylights and sunsets on laughter and strife, on postcards to parents (seriously, read the poem), on maths, and biology, and Tudors and Shakespeare, and on facing those small, those scorching ordeals that will fire your irresolute clay.


1. "Gleeful" is another Shakespearean hapax legomenon, enjoyed in Glee

2. Elsewhere Yeats is said to be my favourite poet - but that still leaves open the favourite poem: Old Dispensation