Poetry by heart

Memorizing poetry has gone out of style, writes Brad Leithauser, a professor of writing and literature, in The New Yorker. His students have trouble memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet. They’re not used to memorizing anything. (I took a theater class at the University of Michigan as a 40-year-old journalism fellow. We were given a week to select and memorize a Shakespearean sonnet. I was the only person in the class who could recite the full sonnet.)

Leithauser’s mother paid him a penny a line to memorize poems.

The first one I mastered was Tennyson’s “The Eagle” (“He clasps the crag with crooked hands”), which brought in a haul of six cents. Opportunistically, I moved on to the longer “Casey at the Bat” (“It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day”) and Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (whose title I mispronounced for decades), which netted me fifty-two cents and twenty-four cents respectively. Some Longfellow, some Frost. I straggled through Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and enough of his “The Ancient Mariner” to purchase a couple of candy bars.

In the heyday of memorization (1875 to 1950), there were many rationales for verse recitation, writes  Catherine Robson’s new Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.

. . .  to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.

She looks at three classics often required of students: Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca”  (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), which Tom Sawyer had to learn; Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and Charles Wolfe’s  “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.”

“If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat,” writes Robson.

Leithauser adds: “You take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”

Here’s The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna.

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    All those people who couldn’t memorize a Shakespearean sonnet, I’ll bet they have memorized dozens of songs without even trying.

    I’ll bet we all have.

  2. I grew up in a household where poetry recitations were a regular part of dinner table conversations and memorization of poetry, selections from speeches, important documents and literature were regularly assigned in school (I started in the early 50s) – all the way through HS. The Owl and the Pussycat, Little Boy Blue, There’s No Frigate Like a Book, Who Has Seen the Wind?, Old Ironsides, The Highwayman, Simon the Cyrenian Speaks, Hiawatha, Evangeline, Casey at the Bat, Gray’s Elegy, On His Blindness, The Charge of the Light Brigade, If, Gunga Din,The White Man’s Burden, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, Bible verses (in public school!), parts from The Rubaiyat, Flanders Fields, passages and sonnets from Shakespeare, Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address – I still have most of those, plus many others, pretty much memorized.

    We were also expected to memorize patriotic songs, folk songs, trail ballads, Dixieland and what used to be called Negro spirituals – all taught by our regular classroom teachers, with the help of records. (we also learned about classical music and jazz). We also learned all of the traditional Christmas carols, for the Christmas pageant, and whatever music was done for the Spring Concert (one year it was Steven Foster’s music, one year I remember doing The Holy City).

    Yes, Roger – everyone memorized popular songs. At the height of Beatlemania, many had all of their songs memorized. None of it did a bit of harm and probably did lots of good.

    • Florida resident says:

      “I grew up in a household where poetry recitations were a regular part of dinner table conversations and memorization of poetry …”.
      Same here, dear Momof 4.
      Your F.r.

  3. What a magnificent poem.

  4. My fifth-grader students memorized lots of Shakespeare—no problem. All these many years later when I run into them, they can still recite quite a bit. It’s how one learns the beauty of the language.

  5. Memorization disciplines the mind, as well as allowing us the delight of having at our immediate disposal our very own personal library of wonders. Looking something up on Google is excellent, but not having to look something up because you’ve committed it to memory is wondrous. Memorizing poetry gives our lives rhythm and understanding, and puts most of life in context. I wonder how many school systems did away with it because an administrator didn’t like to memorize. . . .

  6. lightly seasoned says:

    Eh, whatever. My freshmen memorize the prologue to R & J every year when I teach them sonnets/ R & J. Next week my seniors are choosing a love poem off the Poetry Foundation website to memorize and recite.

  7. Having written about the idea in some depth I’m still not decided that memorising poetry is the best use of student time. The bribery system seems to me the worst possible motivatation, although I’m sure that there are worse sins.