By heart

Edith Foster, a classicist who writes curricula for the National Endowment for the Humanities, suggests a summer project: Teach your children to memorize poetry and speeches.

Memorization does not deserve its reputation as a killer of creativity. On the contrary, memorization is useful to the whole process of thought creation. It exercises intelligence and quiet concentration, creates a supply of examples to think with and about, and provides models of speech that can be accommodated to suit different themes. Memorization is the basis of versatility, because examples that live in the mind are truly one’s own: they can be molded and recast for any useful purpose.

. . . Memorization is a discipline. ItÕs not totally easy. But it makes ideas permanently accessible to the mind. Whether you choose to memorize a poem, something from the Bible, part of a speech, or part of a play, whatever you memorize will become a possession of your family.

Foster gives specific advice on how to teach memorization — including letting your teen-agers realize that they’re better at it than you are. Classic Poems to Read Aloud has some good options, she writes.

I memorized and recited The Highwayman in fifth grade — just for the hell of it. (Actually, I was very nervous about saying “hell” in public in the “though hell should bar the way” lines, even though the teacher said it was OK.) I still remember the first part.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

Likewise I remember the Wordsworth sonnet I had to learn in high school. “The world is too much with us late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours . . . ”

And: “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gire and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves and the mome raths outgrabe.”

If you learn it, you own it.

Via No Left Turns.

About Joanne


  1. I was remembering the same poem to my students.

  2. Mad Scientist says:

    Unfortunately, the only poetry I seem to remember begins: “There once was a man from…”

  3. My daughter did “Lochinvar” in 8th grade. Classmate: “Why’d you do such a long poem?” My child: “Because I liked it.” In 7th grade she did Edward Gorey’s “The Wugglyump”.

    And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
    Oh frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!
    He chortled in his joy.

  4. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Was “The Highwayman” the one where the man did all the fighting and the woman held his horse?

  5. Nope, it’s the one where the redcoats were staked out and prepared to ambush the highwayman, but his girlfriend “shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him with her death”. He escapes, then finds out what happens and

    “Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
    With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
    Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
    When they shot him down on the highway,
    Down like a dog on the highway,
    And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.”

    Here’s a link:

  6. Mark Odell says:

    Mad Scientist wrote: Unfortunately, the only poetry I seem to remember begins: “There once was a man from…”

    You definitely want this book then ;-).

    The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

    The world is too much with us; late and soon by William Wordsworth

    Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

    The Wuggly Ump by Edward Gorey

    And now for something completely different…. A Scotsman on a horse :-).

    Poetry reading (ants)

  7. slimedog says:

    Never did understand the prejudice against memorization…musicians have done it forever!

  8. I went to a very ‘traditional’ private high school; we were expected to memorize poetry and bits of plays in both English and our Foreign Language classes. (for me, that was French).

    Fifteen years later (which really isn’t that long, I know) I can still rattle off “Sous le pont Mirabeau…” and the piece from Macbeth that begins “She should have died hereafter…”

    Oddly, they (and other things I found I memorized on my own; for some reason “Jabberwocky” and some of Dickinson’s poetry stuck itself in my head without my trying) tend to pop up at idle times. I’ve amused myself while mowing the lawn by reciting them over in my mind.

    Didn’t someone who was a prisoner of war or prisoner of conscience talk about how he kept from going insane, because he had a large amount of material (perhaps it was the Psalms?) memorized, and he kept going over them as a sort of mental practice?

    I think there’s a lot of value in memorizing material, you really DO own it in a way that simple study doesn’t bring about.

    and anyone who’s read or seen Farenheit 451 knows of the power of “becoming” a text….

  9. I keep myself from going into road rage by remembering hymns from my childhood, that we don’t seem to sing in church anymore (wonder why!) and trying to remember all the verses. Yes, I sing out loud. “In sorrow he’s my comfort, in trouble he’s my stay, he tells me every care on him to roll! He’s the lily of the valley, the bright and morning star! He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul!” This may have saved lives.
    : )

  10. I have my students memorize poetry so it’s good to see I’m not alone.

  11. Rita C. says:

    I had my kids memorize one of the sonnets from Romeo & Juliet this year. They got a kick out of it. When we watched the movie, they were all shouting the lines at the TV. Too funny.

  12. “borogoves”! “boroGOVES”! Aughhh! It only has one ‘r’! Sorry, that’s one of my pet peeves.

  13. Mad Scientist says:

    Kids remember what they want to remember. Listen to them recite the lyrics to the latest song, or to repeat verbatim what was on TV last night. It’s all a matter of choice.

  14. A psalmist recognized the value of memorization, too:

  15. Ricki is talking about Adml. James Stockdale, I believe. Natan Scharansky (if MY memory serves) had the Psalms with him.

    Dancers (and martial artists) spend years repeating the same movement over and over again, with no ill effect. Slimedog has a good point about musicians and memorized music.

    Many artists spend years copying the works of more accomplished artists, to capture some illusive lesson.

    Many teachers of writing advocate writing in another’s style, for the same reason (capturing lessons difficult to articulate.)

    The problem with rote memorization is if the assignment is dull or preachy, and if it is too much of the child’s grade or the recitation takes up too much class time.

  16. My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Terranova had the entire class memorize a stanza or a verse of poetry every night, and we would recite it the next day, and do mass recitations for student assembly. (We also did the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence)
    It was very satisfactory mental excercise, sort of like limbering up, before a workout.

  17. Cousin Dave says:

    Loreena McKennit’s “The Highwayman”:

    Highly recommended.

  18. Here’s one by William Blake that stuck with me, although I never tried to memorize it. Not as lyrical as some of the others, but it seems appropriate here: The Schoolboy.

  19. Rats. Try this link instead: The Schoolboy

  20. Silly things you remember though. In a series of fantasy books called the Incomplete Enchanter, a group of modern people are in a fantasy world and encounter a monster who’s title I don’t remember. The way to bypass it was to tell it a ballad it had never heard before.

    I used to, and still do, play RPGs (role playing games, such as dungeon and dragons), one of our adventures we encounter aforementioned monster. So there is a guy at the dinner table amid dice and pencils, rulebooks and notepads, character sheets and sodas, reciting the entire Ryme of the Ancient Mariner. Unfortunately the monster had heard it before. Everybody in the group is frantically trying to remember, poetry from school.

    In the book the monster had heard Beowulf before so they ended up telling the Ballad of Eskimo Nell.

  21. I learned “The Highwayman” through the version set to music by Phil Oches. The McKennitt version seems to be derived from that one.

    I used to know 30-verse British traditional ballads by heart and sing them to myself. These days I half-memorize Torah readings, since my Biblical Hebrew isn’t good enough to chant them right from the scroll (and I would have to memorize the cantillation anyway).

  22. I learned the “Friends Romans countrymen” speech from Julius Ceaser when i was in high school.

  23. Mark Odell says:

    Candi Cabaniss wrote: In a series of fantasy books called the Incomplete Enchanter, a group of modern people are in a fantasy world and encounter a monster who’s title I don’t remember.

    The Blatant Beast.