By the shining big sea waters

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.

About Joanne


  1. slimedog says:

    All this goes double for music. Think this might explain why some music students do well in other subjects?

  2. Memorize poetry????

    Heck, many schools don’t even that students should memorize the multiplication tables!!!

  3. Rote memorization as the terminus or point of education is stultifying–but the baby, the water, and the whole dang bathing apparatus all hit the drain. This is in my view, a mistake–I cannot now, unprompted, recite the many prose bits and longer poems I’ve memorized over the years…but they are lying there influencing how I write and how I interpret what I see.

    And yes, if you have your kids memorize math facts (not just the times tables but addition and subtraction and squares and square roots) your kids are light years ahead of their classmates who don’t have that groove going.

  4. Kids DO memorize poetry these days. Here’s a sample couplet:

    “I’ll take that ho’ If she proper,
    I’ma pop her.”

    -Dr. Dre

    See? It rhymes and everything.

  5. I graduated from high school 6 years ago. We only had to memorize 2 things, as far as I can remember (not counting physics formulas and so on). One thing was the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which I can still recite from memory.

    The second thing was the U.S. Constitution – okay, not the whole thing word for word, but a one-line summary of each paragraph. I am not making this up. In 8th grade, we had a test where we each took a blank piece of paper and wrote out the powers granted to Congress, the President, and the judiciary in order, and all the amendments. I remember none of this except a few of my mnemonic devices – the 8th amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, because an 8 looks like a snowman and if you put a snowman in the electric chair it would melt.

  6. Hanna, that’s friggin’ fantastic.

  7. I have my 7th graders memorize poetry every year.

  8. Let’s see, I had to memorize the Gettysburg address, the Preamble to the Constitution, the First through Tenth Amendment, The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Licoln’s second inaugural address and all the state capitols (atleast 45 of which I promptly forgot). Hmm, no poetry. What’s up with that?

    Long story short, I don’t see how it can harm them to memorize poetry, so why not make them do it.

  9. “Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood).”

    I’m all for memorizing poetry (I have a bit of “spring and fall” stuck in my head right now), but this is overkill. It’s like those ads that try to sell math to kids by showing how everyone — even cool musicians who have to count the beat! — needs math.

  10. AnotherScott says:

    The Song of Hiawatha. I read it in my first year of law school.

  11. I remember memorizing a poem a week in eighth grade. In the first high school I attended (the local public school) I didn’t have to memorize anything. The standards there were incredibly low. My senior year at a new arts based charter required me to memorize a lot and I can still recite most of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. Admittedly, I only graduated three years ago, but still. I think memorizing and reciting can be good. It makes you think about what you’re reading.

  12. Tim from Texas says:

    Memorizing poetry and specific passages from great writings and memorizing the time tables as well as learning music enhances learning for all the reasons mentioned above.

    The stultifying aspect of memorization is the reason for so much resistance to it especially with respect to poetry and passages, and rightfully so, for too much of it can be mind numbing.

    Many other countries use two teaching methods in the languages which do what memorization does for the student plus much more. They have had great success with them. These methods are called the dictation and the reproduction.

  13. When I was Jr. High, we did a great deal of memorization of poetry, but it generally was no assigned. The students chose the poems on their own. The teacher did have veto power, however.

  14. We did lots of memorization of poetry and prose starting in junior high. We had school competitions by grade in various categories of reciting poetry and prose, and then the winners went on to district, state, and national competition. This was in TCIL (Texas Catholic Interscholastic League). I think the UIL (public schools) did it also in the 60’s and 70’s. You had to do two pieces. I did Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. I surprised my daughter last month by reciting both of them. She got Lincoln’s in stereo, ’cause her dad chimed in. Seems he had to memorize it, too. He graduated high school in 1970, and me in 1975. I had four years of Spanish, and he had three of French and three of Latin. We both memorized parts of various Shakespeare works, and performed them in the classroom for our fellow students. We had to write book reports,and then read them aloud to our classmates. When reading aloud, we were expected to read with feeling and clarity, and to pronounce words correctly and clearly. Schools have come a long way down since then.

  15. I memorized poetry for English class in the 1980s. We had a different poem every week. I remember doing “O Captain, My Captain”, “Annabel Lee”, and “If”. Those stick out. Later on, I memorized a few poems for fun. I used to have “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” memorized, but let that lapse. I can recognize lines from it now, though. I should re-memorize “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. I love Donne.

  16. Milne is kindergarden or pre-K material. Kipling’s probably in the right place; his language is simple enough and there’s enough action going on to make it interesting for young listeners.

    But Blake? The man who wrote “Sick Rose” and “Marriage Between Heaven and Hell”? That’s not kid’s stuff. Sure it’s pretty and it flows well. But as far as I can tell, you have to have a strong grounding in Christian mythology before Blake makes sense. I’d have the kids read the first chapters of Paradise Lost, and maybe Il Inferno, before leaving through Blake.

  17. I couldn’t agree more. Memorization is one of the best ways to acquire a mastery of language.

    I created some short stories for memorization, heavily laden with vocabulary, for my homescool charges and then collected them into an SAT prep book. They are up here:


  18. At age 56 I still remember the first piece
    of poetry I was required to memorize at age 6.
    I’m all for memorization. It has served me well.



    UPDATE, OCTOBER 4: See also Joanne Jacobs and The City Journal “In Defense of Memorization” by Michael Knox Beran, to which Pete DaDalt kindly drew my attention. By the way, we haven’t gotten round to memorizing any poems– kindergarten and…

  2. Poems for Children to Memorize

    I think I’ll repeat this old entry, since I’ve updated it: UPDATE, OCTOBER 4: See also HREF=””>Joanne Jacobs and The City Journal”>”In Defense of Memoriza…

  3. Poems for Children to Memorize

    I think I’ll repeat this old entry, since I’ve updated it: UPDATE, OCTOBER 4: See also Joanne Jacobs and The City Journal”>”In Defense of Memorization” by Michael Knox Beran, to which Pete DaDalt kindly d…