The Yellow Omnibus

Originally in Schools Poetry Review and The Third Half

To combine poetry and handwriting lessons probably seemed like a good idea to some educationalists at the time. Quite economic and efficient in a way; the sort of thing that would appeal to a certain type of thinking today.

I was one of a class of forty or so nine-year-olds sitting, well-behaved, in a suburban schoolroom of the mid nineteen-fifties. It was a fine summer day, but we were quite ready to endure the last lesson before the fifteen or so minutes that the teachers called break and we called playtime.

Mrs. Trevithick was really quite a good sort, usually able to inject a bit of life and meaning into dull lessons. She was short and plump, with quick movements and a manner which contrived to be friendly and aggressive at the same time. Her features were a little on the mannish side, but what you noticed about her was the mane of straw-coloured hair and her pale, watchful grey eyes. These would flicker in your direction just when you thought it safe to doodle, to swap notes daringly scrawled with childish obscenities, or to pinch the girl sitting in front.

At this moment I was doing none of these things. Mrs. Trevithick was reading a poem with the title Symphony in Yellow*. It was a short, simple piece, doing nothing more clever than describing a scene in which that colour was the keynote. But for me, on that afternoon, this rather ordinary poem had a quality which can only be called magical. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm which my teacher brought to it; perhaps the afternoon sunlight streaming through the high windows made the moment itself a special one; perhaps it was merely the colour of the omnibus described in the poem - we would never have called our red monsters omnibuses - but the effect of that simple verse has stayed with me in a remarkable way. I really can, just by closing my eyes, still see that yellow omnibus coming through the fog and over the bridge. A great deal of far better writing has given me much reward since but none of it has had, nor I suppose ever will have, quite the same evocative quality.

Mrs. Trevithick read the poem three times, each time taking care and pleasure in it. As far as I was concerned she could have read it three times more. But she closed the book rather suddenly and marched over to the blackboard in her brisk way.

The second part of the lesson had begun.

She continued to talk about the poem as she wrote it out on the board, swiftly and neatly, and seemingly from memory. But now she was talking more to distract her charges from their impulses toward waywardness than to impart to them a feeling for the poem, in the way that she had just a few minutes before.

Usually I resented copy work. I was often scolded for untidiness. This time I took far more care than normal, and felt a definite pleasure in writing out the word omnibus. I liked to be one of the first to finish: Mrs. Trevithick often let the early finishers out into the yard a precious minute or two earlier. She was doing so on this day, and indeed was well on with her tour of inspection before I was half way through. But, keen as I was to join the other Cavaliers and Roundheads in their violent game, for once I did not hurry to finish.

When at last I was able to sit back with arms folded in the required fashion, I had produced what was by my standards a remarkably neat piece of copy. So I was surprised when Mrs. Trevithick surveyed my work with a critical eye; I was astounded when she pointed to the blackboard, then to my exercise book, and simply said:

'Do it again. Properly.'

This wasn't the first time I'd had to rewrite something, so once I'd recovered from my shock I set to work. All that I could find wrong was one misspelling and a few capital letters carelessly used. It seemed small reason to have to repeat the exercise. It didn't take me long to do it, but the second time it was a joyless task. Omnibus now was a series of marks I had to put down on the page because I'd been told to do it.

I couldn't believe it when my teacher's response to my second effort was an exasperated:

'No. Look at the board. Look!'

I really could not see what I was doing wrong. It was all I could do to choke back the tears of anger and frustration as I picked up my pen to begin once more the hated task. Only the child's fear of adult retribution drove me on.

After I had completed the first few lines, Mrs. Trevithick came to me and took the pen from my hand. More gently this time, she bade me to look at the board. Still I could not see what was wrong. She walked slowly and silently to the board, and with her plump forefinger pointed very deliberately to the first word of each line in turn. Her hand followed a zigzag path and at last I could see my error. The middle lines of each stanza were carefully indented. So that, I naturally thought, was what made poetry different from other writing. Not the interplay and cadences of the words, not the power of imagery, not the unique pleasure that could be had from the use of words like omnibus. Just a pretty pattern on the page.

Mrs. Trevithick did not have the heart to make me copy the thing again. She seemed to realise that that she had gone too far in making her point. She smiled as she finally relieved me of the exercise book and murmured a few words that were meant to be encouraging. But by then the whistle had blown in the yard, bringing to an end what was to be the last game of Cavaliers and Roundheads. One of the Roundheads had suffered a broken arm and the Headmaster, recognising that the historical connections of the game were purely incidental, had banned it.

The Roundhead sported the distinction of a plaster cast for several weeks. A new game, Romans and Britons, had been initiated, enjoyed a short but vigorous life, and in its turn had been outlawed before the arm had healed. The damage to my literary sensibility was longer lasting. Although I developed a love of good writing, my preferences for many years were for prose. When I was well into my twenties my eyes would automatically skip over verse which appeared in any text I was reading.

Eventually, I learned to resist this impulse, but even now I'm especially sensitive to the look of a piece on the page. A poem with very many two- or three-word lines has to have some special aural or expressive qualities before it can start to have any chance with me. And all because of a prejudice I acquired nearly fifty years ago, in a sunlit schoolroom, and under the watchful eye of a teacher who, after all, was only doing her best.


*

Symphony in Yellow is a poem by Oscar Wilde, but I didn't know this at the time. I didn't even know who Oscar Wilde was then. As I've said, I think now that it's a very ordinary poem. I don't mind rhyme at all, but Printer's Rhyme - rhyme that looks as though it rhymes on the page but doesn't when you say it - seems pointless to me. Anyway, here is the poem:

SYMPHONY IN YELLOW

Oscar Wilde

       An omnibus across the bridge
             Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
             And, here and there, a passer-by
       Shows like a little restless midge.

       Big barges full of yellow hay
             Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
             And, like a yellow silken scarf,
       The thick fog hangs along the quay.

       The yellow leaves begin to fade
             And flutter from the Temple elms,
             And at my feet the pale green Thames
       Lies like a rod of rippled jade.


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