The Magazine

Reason for Rhyme

The lost art of memorizing (and reciting) verse.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then, 

Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,

She took up the flag the men hauled down

Thus John Greenleaf Whittier’s heroine defies Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops.  

I learned the poem by heart decades ago, and it is not likely to leave me until I leave. Catherine Robson’s extraordinary book, a feat of imagining as well as of scholarship, explores the memorization and reciting of poems in classrooms across England and America through substantial portions of the last two centuries. Memorization began to decline in the decades after (roughly) 1920, America holding out a bit longer than Britain, as the backlash against rote learning in both countries combined with other factors to spell the end of the practice. Robson compares herself in the introduction to a historical novelist, and her treatment of the subject throughout is lovingly and tellingly inflected with personal and familial experience. She notes that many would be willing, perhaps in a sentimental mood, to regret the loss of a world in which many individuals could recite fine-sounding lines; but she’s under no illusion that bringing back that world is in the least way possible, whether or not desirable.

A professor at New York University, Robson grew up in England, and the three poems she chooses for extended discussion are English ones: “Casabianca” by Felicia Hemans (The boy stood on the burning deck), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” (The curfew tolls the knell of parting day), and “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” (Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note) by Charles Wolfe. There are also brief treatments in an afterword of W. E. Henley’s “Invictus” (I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul) and Kipling’s “If.” Of course, these poems were also American recitation favorites—“The boy stood on the burning deck” is recited in the school exercises attended by Tom Sawyer—but Robson’s book focuses mainly on the English school scene.

Robson says her approach to the subject is allied with three key fields of recent academic inquiry: the history of the book, the cultural history of reading, and questions of literature’s “reception” over time. If this sounds like the dread Cultural Studies of current ubiquity, Robson’s theoretical inquiry is always grounded in the particular and consists not merely of factual data but of conjectures about recitation performances and their preparations. She notes that poetry works especially well not only as a teaching agency in developing pre-reading and reading skills, but also as furnishing “prestigious material for recitation.” (One of her nice phrases for this activity is “Christ by other means.”)  

She quotes one Percival Chubb, an American who wrote in a frequently reprinted book on teaching English in the elementary school that although memory and recitation are useful in “confirming the child in correct ways of speaking .  .  . its greatest service is in storing the mind with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings that have been uttered by the race.” These early impressions and memories “impart a tone to one’s spiritual system for life, rich and pure enough to outsing all base and cruder songs and to set the pitch of character.”

Such rhetorical flights may remind us that, 30 years before Chubb’s encomium, the high destiny which was to be poetry’s had been boldly staked out by Matthew Arnold. In his great essay “The Study of Poetry” (1881), Arnold predicted that “more and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” He also declared that “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” Twenty years previously, Robson tells us, Arnold had been pleased that, under the Revised Code of 1861-62, the memorized poem in Britain achieved its fullest expansion. For Arnold, the great value of memorized recitations was that, in them, subject matter was not “talked about,” it was “learnt.”