Learn It By Heart For The Sake Of Civilisation

The case for memorising verse is often dismissed as nostalgia for the bad old days of rote learning. But memory lifts poems off the page.

Education Features Literature
No books, no barriers: The finalists of this year’s Poetry By Heart competition. Its ambassadors say memory and understanding go together (photo: Poetry By Heart/Sam Strickland)

Remember Mnemosyne? It seems today’s poets have forgotten the mother of the muses, Memory herself. In a bizarre spectacle, more than 100 poets joined writers and academics in March to sign an e-petition against the Department of Education’s fiendish plot to have children remember poems for their English Literature GCSE. Such poets included Gillian Clarke (the National Poet of Wales), Moniza Alvi and Jane Weir, whose poem “Poppies” even features on the syllabus. Why the high dudgeon? Have these poets never heard of Arthur Rimbaud, forced to memorise page after page of Latin verse by his mother? Or James Joyce, whose Jesuit education lay behind his gargantuan powers of recall? Or Sylvia Plath, who learnt a poem a day at breakfast?

As reported in the Sunday Times, Andrea Brady, Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, commented that the Department of Education’s approach is “based on a fantasy of the good old days, when students sat up straight and memorised Kipling. The skills that we value at university—the ability to read carefully, to discern the characteristics of a poem through inventive close reading—are not ones which would be tested by this exam.” Her carping reference to Kipling is as crass as it comes—proof that she hasn’t read him very closely or creatively. Unfortunately, “inventive close reading” is honoured far more in the breach than the observance. Instead, English students are too often browbeaten by critical theory and penalised if they fail to repeat its dogmas of deconstruction, new historicism and semiotics ad infinitum.

Considering the uproar, the exact wording of the e-petition is disarmingly mild. In response to the requirement for students from 2017 “to remember” 15 to 18 poems in order to “closely analyse” them, it asks that the government consult with the English teaching community “as to whether this is the fairest and most meaningful way of assessing students’ understanding and appreciation of poetry”. Its creator, Mary Meredith, a Lincolnshire schoolteacher, followed the e-petition with an open letter to Glenys Stacey, the Chief Regulator at Ofqual, to express her concern that a “closed book examination is not the most valid way of assessing poetry appreciation”. She complained that even learners “with the critical sensitivity to fully understand the impact of a half rhyme, an extra metric foot, a line break, a full stop, a comma—most of them will not have the opportunity to demonstrate this sensitivity in an exam which emphasises memory over forensic engagement with text.”

This strikes me as odd. How else could you appreciate, say, the impact of a half rhyme, without saying it, hearing it, feeling it and being able to bring it to mind? Isn’t that part of knowing why it’s there? In “Strange Meeting”, Wilfred Owen’s battering chain of “escaped”, “scooped”, “groined” and “groaned” has little impact on the page, in the deathly silence of the exam hall. Meredith asks for one simple change: “an open book anthology paper”. Pupils will perform better when they “have in front of them the object for close analysis—rather than just a memory of that object”. This object for “forensic engagement” and “close analysis” carries a rather clinical feel: a nightingale carefully asphyxiated within a Victorian bell-jar.

Sadly it seems that no one, not least of all our blessed poets, bothered to do their homework. In response, Stacey has stated quite explicitly that “it is not a requirement of the exam for students to memorise text”. So there we have it. We can all breathe a sigh of relief—or disappointment. True, students will not be allowed to bring their own textbooks into the exam because it’s too easy to cheat by cramming them full of annotations. Instead, they will be presented with an unseen text and asked to discuss it in relation to works within the anthology. That’s it. To do this, they will need to have a good basic knowledge of the poems, yes. They will need to grasp similarities and differences in theme and style, yes. They will need to have some quotations to hand and some arguments at the ready, yes. But will they need to memorise any poem, word for word, by rote? No. If the unseen text in my exam happened to be “Strange Meeting”, then I would need to compare its use of half rhyme with whole rhyme in, say, a Shakespearean sonnet. But to do so, would I need to stand on a chair and say the sonnet over and over until I go mad? No. Would I be forced to recite it until iambic pentameter bleeds out of my ears? No. Would I be put off poetry forever and forever? Probably not, either.

What a storm in a triolet! But why does the spectre of rote learning arouse such powerful emotions? Why is it regarded as a diabolical blasphemy against education? Why has it fallen into such disfavour?

For a wonderfully dispassionate guide to this debate, there is no better book than Catherine Robson’s magisterial Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem (Princeton, £30.95). Neither sentimentalist nor cynic, Robson traces the glory days of the memorised poem from the late 18th century to the Second World War. Prior to this, the first reading for almost all children was doctrinal: “the ABC with the catechism, the primer, the psalter, the Prayer Book, biblical passages and varied prayers and graces.” In the 1700s, infant readers continued to be fed on a diet of morally improving texts, but older children were given literary extracts to aid elocution. Of the former, “How doth the little busy bee” was a particular favourite, and popular enough to be mocked by Lewis Carroll as “How doth the little crocodile” in Alice In Wonderland. Of the latter, recitations from Milton and Shakespeare were typical standards.

Revolution came with the arrival of universal education in the 19th century and the establishment of the elementary school, the main engine of memorisation. Money drove the practice; from 1862 there was a direct link between successful classroom recitation and the size of a school’s budget, presumably because this kind of performance was easy to test by visiting inspectors. By 1882, the whole of the English curriculum consisted of recitation, from knowing 20 lines of simple verse at the first level to 150 lines at the last. Yet the money went hand in hand with social reform. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold, in his role as a school inspector, saw memorisation as a great equaliser. He said, “It is strange that a lesson of such old standing and such high credit in our schools for the rich should not sooner have been introduced in our schools for the poor.” Within its “mass of treasures” were discipline, intellectual and spiritual nourishment, and an encounter with literary genius.    

Robson shows that, inevitably, Arnold’s ideals were not always the reality. School inspector John Morley complained in 1868 that while he heard every child in a classroom “read with apparent fluency from his or her reading book, not one of them could read the simplest words in a similar, but hitherto unseen, volume”. Later, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor of the famous Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, described the depressing spectacle of poverty-stricken Cornish children reciting poetry of which they had no understanding, let alone enjoyment.

In response to such concerns, from 1905 up to 1944, guidelines were relaxed and children were encouraged to make their own selection of poems to memorise. But the seed of doubt was planted. Robson argues that memorisation had been defended on two grounds. First, “learning to read” and, second, “something to read”. However, once it was decided that memorisation was at odds with selection specific language building, it was viewed as unhelpful to both teacher and pupil. Then, as poetry became increasingly regarded as a personal, creative, expressive outpouring rather than as a skill learned, the business of reciting the work of previous poets was seen to deaden sensitivity to the art. Finally, the replacement of the Elementary School with the Primary School in 1944 brought the mass chanting of poems to a definitive end. Whole classroom activities such as recitation were replaced with a more child-centric approach to learning and an emphasis on silent reading.

The cut-off point of the Second World War is telling and perhaps accounts for the depth of feeling on this subject. This date is lodged in the British psyche like a landmine. Yet it would be a mistake to make this a battle of tradition versus modernity; class against equality; Conservative versus Labour; the imperial nightmare of the past versus the Utopia to come. There is collective concern for the collective memory we are losing. As Robson notes, the less-than-Tory figure of Gordon Brown reminisced happily on BBC radio about reciting Gray’s Elegy at school and wondered why this approach to poetry couldn’t be included in today’s curriculum. One answer is that poetry has now fallen victim to the belief identified by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths About Education (Routledge, £14.99) that learning facts prevents understanding. If the words of the poem are the facts and facts prevent understanding, then to understand the poem we can’t know the words. If we know the words, then we can’t understand them. This is why a Professor of Poetry complains that memorising poems (which no one is even suggesting) prevents “close reading”. How much closer can you get?

Yet recitation isn’t going quietly. As the e-petition gathered steam, the finals of the Poetry By Heart competition were being held at Homerton College, Cambridge. This endeavour emerged from Sir Andrew Motion at the end of his laureateship as an initiative of the Poetry Archive, itself a fantastic resource for poets to hear the voices of the past.

Mike Dixon is an ambassador for the cause, and, as the former head of a sixth-form college (and head of English too), has decades of experience in the classroom. He explains: “Our philosophy is that we remain entirely voluntary. We have 333 schools and colleges taking part with 1,150 registered. We’ve had a 20 per cent increase of people doing it, year on year. So there’s momentum.

“It works like this. Schools register and run their own competition. There are county rounds; the county winners join us for an all-weekend event. This year we had 43 people go forward to the national final and eight get through to the very last round. There are weekend activities and it’s a real celebration with a lovely atmosphere.”

Old enough to remember closed book exams, Dixon considers the proposed changes to the GCSE to be fairly unremarkable; he also agrees with Robson that silent reading has had some adverse consequences. “We have lost touch with the acoustic quality of verse. Watching younger people recite poetry it’s fascinating to see what happens. The speaker and the audience are very exposed. You’re taking away the book and the lectern. You’re taking away barriers.”

How do the participants remember all those words? He says, “We talk about poetry by heart, not rote learning, and there is a difference. Rote learning sounds dry, deliberate and dusty. The children use a range of ways: repetition; recording their voice and hearing it back. They also use the memory temple.” The method of loci effortlessly links Ancient Greece with the modern classroom.  

Memory and understanding work together as a process. “First of all you choose the poem. Then you begin to think about it. You learn and memorise it—and finally you share it with others. Young people somehow suspect poetry is subject to a code and they want to know the code. They say ‘just tell me what it means.’ We don’t do that. We encourage a confident, enjoyable, individual response to poetry and we introduce them to all the great stuff out there.” This covers Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wordsworth as well as neglected works from Anne Finch, Mary Leapor and Hannah More. The winner this year was Emily Dunstan, 16, from Tooting, south London, as judged by a panel including poets Jo Shapcott, Daljit Nagra and Patience Agbabi. Dunstan recited “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop, “The Death Bed” by Siegfried Sassoon and “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment.

The Faculty of Education next door is home to a remarkable Poetry and Memory research project that began in January 2014 and promises to supply a dose of scientific rigour to any sentimentality around “the good old days”. This grew out of a project in which Professor David Whitley and fellow researcher Debbie Pullinger interviewed poetry teachers from primary school through to university level. He says, “Many of the most passionately committed teachers thought that it was essential for them to feel that they had ownership of the poems they were teaching, in some way, and felt deeply concerned that they should find ways whereby their students could also feel they took ownership of the poems.”

Whitley continues, “The more profound importance of this topic resides in the question of whether it may actually be central to what poetry is and does, how it really ‘lives’ inside us. Is memorisation, on this broader view, really a mode of relationship between individuals, cultures and poetry that modern cultures and pedagogies—with their increasing emphasis, as children get older, on the detailed analysis of words on the page—tend to side-line or ignore completely?”
The project has gathered material from an online survey completed by over 400 respondents. This asked people what poetry meant to them, what value they saw in it, when they memorised poems and in what circumstances. The next phase will explore the most significant issues that emerge from the survey through in-depth interviews with individuals.

“I’ve been impressed—and actually very moved—by some of the accounts I’ve read so far from respondents about what a particular memorised poem means for them. Many of our respondents seemed to feel that a memorised poem was a significant expansion of their being.

“Two other things strike me as being very interesting. First nearly 90 per cent of people said they’d first memorised poetry as children and a similar proportion said that they learned poems as an adult (80 per cent). It would seem that very few people have learned poems as adults who hadn’t first done so as children. If the practice is valuable, then, it would seem vital that we begin early. Secondly, people had learned poems for many reasons but ‘pleasure’ was the most often cited.”

This last insight doesn’t surprise me in the least. For nine years, I wrote a poetry column in a free newspaper in New York in which I stressed the need to remember the words. I was inundated with messages from professors to housewives, high-school students to businessmen. An email from “Scholar Spartan” is saved on my desktop. He wrote, “I was on the subway when I came across your piece. Thank you for explaining the nuances of Shelley’s narrative poem Alastor. It furthered my understanding—and interest—in the poem to the point where I quietly recited the last part (‘He lingered, poring on memorials . . .’) the rest of the ride home until I knew it by rote; because, really, by that time I knew how the narrator felt when ‘meaning on his vacant mind / Flashed like strong inspiration.’” Such inspiration can only occur when the poem stops being an object and starts being us.

Whitley quotes Derek Walcott: “When you read a poem on a platform, you are asking an audience to make an effort of memory, no matter how difficult the poem is. I think this has been lost in Western poetry: memory is not part of it any more, and if that is denied, you’re not going to get any real poetry . . . The function of poetry is to recite.”

In Robson’s book, I was fascinated to discover a disreputable canon of popular verse snubbed by the major anthologies, with works including Felicia Hemans’s “The Child’s First Grief”, Southey’s “After Blenheim”, Scott’s “Death of Marmion”, Longfellow’s “King Robert of Sicily”, and Whittier’s “Snowblind”. You can see why they have fallen out of fashion. Many feature battles. They promote virtues of bravery, heroism and sacrifice. They tend to be ballads and they invariably rhyme. Yet even at their worst (and some like Lowell’s Vision of Sir Launfal are bloody awful), they’re far more fun to say aloud than the great slabs of tasteful tedium in the TLS. Something indeed has been lost. Do today’s poets have the noisy, vulgar, mawkish, commanding gifts of rhetoric to capture an audience?

Whitley reflects, “If you accept even a part of Walcott’s assertion, then a case has to be made for bringing the memorisation of poems back in from the shadows, seeing it as a central element in revitalising our relationship with poetry in modern, Western culture. That may seem very grandiose, but it’s close to what I’ve come to believe.”

It’s what I believe too. For me, “forensic engagement” restricts the poem to the exam hall, where it will soon be forgotten. It is memory that takes the poem outside and into the world. The poem then exists in the street, on the bus, in the pause between stations. I don’t want poetry to be a political battleground. I just want people, of any age, to remember the stuff, for no better reason than it’s wonderful. Because it expresses the essence of what it means to be human—and life would be empty without it. If the poem is never known by heart, it stays on the page, little more than a crossword puzzle, a plaything of clever cleverness and never personally meaningful. It can never spontaneously arise at the right moment to provide comfort, solace, wisdom. It can never provide joy. Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me—My Journey Through Depression (Yellow Kite, £16.99) shows how poetry lifted her out of suicidal depression. That’s not some flip academic game. That’s life at its most raw, when the soul cries out for what is true.

Remember Mnemosyne. She is the mother of literature, science and the arts. She is the mother of all knowledge in the endless dance between the past and the future. To defend memory is not only to defend the essence of ourselves but the essence of civilisation.