31st January 2013
It’s tempting to sentimentalize an era in which poetry—memorized, recited poetry—held so prominent a place in the culture. But its once-substantial role turns out to be a mixed and complicated tale, as thoroughly chronicled in Catherine Robson’s new “Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.” Reared in England, now a professor at N.Y.U., Robson compares classroom procedures in Britain and the United States during the years when recitation held a sizeable and official slot in the curriculum (roughly 1875 to 1950). The rationales for verse recitation were many and sometimes mutually contradictory: 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. And the construction of a canon—the choice of which poems ought to be assigned to students at various grade levels—grew out of a collision of nationalistic zeal, piety, commercial enterprise (the success or failure of various competitive “readers”—what we would call textbooks), thoughtless imitation, and a fair amount of what looks like happenstance.
Memorizing a poem gives you the immediate power, no matter where you are or what you are doing, to teleport inside of an exciting story and wallow in the magic of the English language.
Of Man’s first Disobedience and the Fruit…
A gentle knight came pricking o’er the plain…
Oft have I travelled in the Realms of Gold….
Now is the winter of our discontent….
It little profits that an idle king….
God of our fathers, known of old,….
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,….
All that is gold does not glitter,….
It’s like having a Kindle without needing to spend the money or weigh down your pockets. And the prevalence of portable recording players makes memorization of poetry (which is deliberately designed to be memorized) easier than ever. (Some poems, like Noyes’ The Highwayman, are like ear-worms; once you hear them, it’s almost impossible to get them out of your head.)