The School Song

Original Version:

Time will make its utter changes,
Circumstance will scatter us;
But the memories of our school days
Are a living part of us.

Chorus -
So remember then, when you are men
With important things to do,
That once you were young, and this song have sung
For you were at school here, too.
 
Daily we sit down in form-rooms,
Inky hand to puzzled head:
Reason's light, and Knowledge power;
Man must study till he's dead.
 
Man has mind but body also;
So we learn to tackle low,
Bowl the off-breaks, hit the sixes,
Bend the diver's brilliant bow.
 
Man must live among his neighbours,
For he cannot live alone;
Friendships, failures and successes
Here we learn to make our own.
 
Tractors grunt where oceans wandered,
Factories stand where green grass grew:
Voices break and features alter,
We shall soon be different, too.
 
Boys and cities, schools and natures,
Though they change like you and me,
Do not simply grow and happen,
They are what they choose to be.

W.H.Auden
 
 

Today's version

Time will make its utter changes,
Circumstance will scatter us;
But the memories of our school days
Are a living part of us.
 
Chorus -
So remember then, when you are grown
With important things to do,
That once you were young, and this song have sung
For you were at school here, too.
 
We must live among our neighbours,
For we cannot live alone;
Friendships, failures and successes
Here we learn to make our own.
 
Children, cities, schools and natures,
Though they change like you and me,
Do not simply grow and happen,
They are what they choose to be.
 
 

Alan Wright (RP 1945-53) writes:

"I have it on the very best authority that W.H.Auden, one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century, claimed, when sitting in a coffee bar in the Cornmarket in Oxford, that he had only the faintest recollection of what he actually wrote when composing the lyrics of our school song. The date of this claim was the Autumn of 1956, some twenty years or so after Auden had put together the verses which most of the readers of this article have sung on several occasions, and the most informal interview which, the poet found himself giving in Oxford went on to suggest that the six verses and their accompanying chorus were assembled in the company of founder headmaster, John Garrett over a tipple in The Duke of Cambridge. "I certainly remember writing it," murmured Auden in the transatlantic accent which his wartime in America had encouraged, "but I can't remember what I wrote."
 
Yet despite his vagueness when looking back at the pleasant evening out with Garrett, Auden did succeed in jotting down, in scansion that makes the words easy to remember and with rhymes which come trippingly off the tongue, a brief and palatable catalogue of some of the important issues which we all have to take seriously if we are to have reasonably happy lives. We must keep our minds awake, the poet tells it (because "Reason's light and Knowledge power"); we should not forget the importance of physical fitness (for "Man has mind but body also"); we have to live accommodatingly with those around us ("For he cannot live alone") and we ought to make the most at all times of the dignity and important of our own freedom of choice since ("They are what they choose to be"). Above all, Auden reminds us we have to be mature enough to take with equanimity the frequently unforeseen changes that the passing of time will make in our lives, for these changes can scupper the best laid plans. Perhaps the poet is right when in the chorus he suggests that what happens to us in our schooldays may help us to enjoy or endure any tricks that Fate plays later.
 
But this is beginning to sound too reverential and Auden would have no truck with reverence, avoiding as he does any danger of preaching, or of sounding like the older person - he was about thirty years old when he wrote the song - telling the younger how to run his or her life. He avoids a personal didactic tone by arranging the words of the song as a sung monologue with ‘we’, the school students, singing the shrewd or contemplative verses, and addressing "you", the unconvinced, perhaps, in the choruses. As a consequence, it is the students themselves who hand out any moralising advice which is included. The song, far from being solemn is also a jolly creation, thanks to a large extent to Thomas Wood’s jaunty music, and it is also an interesting social document portraying the preoccu-pations and the physical changes of south-western London suburbia in the nineteen-thirties. From the language point of view, it has its attractions, too: there are a memorable personification ("Tractors grunt"), neat alliterations ("green grass grew") and one metaphor ("the diver’s brilliant bow") which Auden liked enough to use again in his poem, "One Evening":
 
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
 
Nevertheless, this acknowledgement of the various skills involved comes as no surprise for we know that no headteacher or board of governors would have accepted the song if it hadn’t included the requisite amount of unobtrusive good advice, if it had been poorly written or had sounded like a cacophony, and the quality of our school song is less important and less interesting than the effect it has had or does have on us as students or former students of Raynes Park School.
 
When I was at Raynes Park (1945-1953), the school song was sung at every end of term assembly. This means that I sang it at least twenty-four times, but since it is possible that it figured at the beginnings of terms as well, I may have contributed to forty-eight renditions. And then, of course, there were practises with various music teachers, which would have taken the total to above the half century.
 
In my youth I could possibly have sung a hymn or two as frequently, but it is likely, since I have an execrable singing voice and have never been a member of a choir, that the school song is the only piece which I have sung, almost from beginning to end ( - the poor second verse with its inky hand was usually tactfully omitted - ) with any genuine frequency. For many readers the experience will probably be similar.
 
The end of term versions were the more important because they signified freedom, and the imminence of the holidays led to the assembled students bellowing the words and drowning a piano accompaniment. For members of staff on the platform, or perhaps for innocent by-passers making their way to Carters’ Tested Seeds nearby, the din was no doubt appalling, but nevertheless the memory of the song as an expression of release at the end of a term is the most affectionate of my recollections. W.H.Auden’s predictions for the future have become apparent only more recently and with retrospection, and I am a little disappointed to recall that my awareness of camaraderie within the school was never enhanced, as tradition no doubt intended it to have been, by my bellowing of Auden’s lyrics.
 
The Raynes Park school song is a card of identity to be proud of, and it is far too important a work not to make the fullest use of in 1937 in spite of its obvious inadequacies for today. Among these inadequacies was the feeling in the nineteen-thirties that it would be inappropriate to list among the future issues of concern the successful organisation of one’s emotional life, and since it was written for a boys’ school the gender balance is all awry as well, and one’s imagination is taxed by the prospect of modernising it in order to include quite proper reference to both sexes. So, perhaps for some of us who sing it today it will remain an historical document, but it may also be important for individuals in many different ways."