In the new City Journal, Michael Knox Beran defends teaching children to memorize poetry.
In his book on Shakespeare, Michael Wood observed that the poet “was the product of a memorizing culture in which huge chunks of literature were learned by heart.” Such “learning by rote,” Wood wrote, “offers many rewards, not least a sense of poetry, rhythm and refinement — a heightened feel for language,” as well as an abundance of tales and myths, imaginative resources that are among the “most exciting gifts” a young person can receive.
In the 1920s, the New York City public schools required teachers to have students memorize poetry and speeches.
Poems “for reading and memorization” by first-graders include those of Robert Louis Stevenson (“Rain” and “The Land of Nod”), A. A. Milne (“Hoppity”), Christina Rossetti (“Four Pets”), and Charles Kingsley (“The Lost Doll”). Second-graders grappled with poems by Tennyson (“The Bee and the Flower”), Sara Coleridge (“The Garden Year”), and Lewis Carroll (“The Melancholy Pig”). In third grade came Blake’s “The Shepherd” and Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” while fourth grade brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Kipling. In the grades that followed, students read and recited poems by Arnold, Browning, Burns, Cowper, Emerson, Keats, Macaulay, Poe, Scott, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman, and Wordsworth. Eighth-graders tackled Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.
The great wave of immigrants, like my grandfather, learned the rhythm and rhyme of the English language.
From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.
What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development. Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood). Mastering these concepts involves the most fundamental kind of learning, for these are the basic categories of thought and the framework in which we organize sensory experience . . . And of course memorization is a kind of exercise that strengthens the powers of the mind, just as physical exercise strengthens those of the body.
Children learn syntax and vocabulary. And they learn about “their cultural inheritance as members of Western civilization and citizens of a particular nation.”
Memorizing poetry had gone out when I was in school, though we did have to memorize the preamble to the Constitution to get out of eighth grade. I memorized anyhow for the joy of the language. If you know it, you own it.