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.