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.”  

This educational bias helped me understand something I hadn’t previously about Robert Frost’s practice as a teacher at Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire, just before he left for England in 1912. Frost believed, and carried out in his pedagogy, that the real test of literary appreciation consisted in how well students read poems aloud rather than in any “analytic” attempts to say what the poem meant, or how it struck them. What seemed to me perhaps a unique Frostian slant on things was, in fact, decidedly in the tradition that Arnold rationalized and that had existed for decades in schoolrooms. Robson invites us to take her book’s title literally, as when, in her discussion of “Casabianca,” she claims that “if we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beats.” She argues that since contemporary readers no longer hold poems with regular iambic rhythms (or any sort of rhythms) at their core, we think about literature in altogether less “corporeal” ways than did our predecessors. Perhaps so, and typical of the imaginative outreach of her procedures.

The chapter on Gray’s Elegy is the longest, and was of the most interest to me because, although “Casabianca” and the Sir John Moore burial poem are of undeniable historical and cultural interest, their limitations as poems are still obvious. Robson makes a case for changing the biases of literary studies after the “theory wars” of the later 20th century. She thinks these studies provided a “devastating attack upon the concept of trans-historical value,” and notes that the mainstream of literary criticism now has “generally been loath to declare in print that a text is good or bad.” Attention should be paid instead to contexts, historical and otherwise. 

As someone evidently out of this “mainstream,” I have never been loath to make a judgment, in class or in print, that a particular poem (not a “text,” please) is good or bad or somewhere in-between—so I find myself slightly at war with history and contexts. But Gray’s Elegy is so rich a poem, so crammed with varied images and compelling verse movement, that it is simply in a different class from the other two poems. Robson acknowledges the difference, at least in terms of the Elegy’s relative difficulty and complexity, by informing us that it was assigned to “top” classes, or final stages of public education, and was probably taken to “heart” only by pupils who were particularly academically able. She is interested especially in imagining, both as historian and novelist, its reception by British pupils: “What might the Elegy have meant to individuals who underwent the experience of leaving one [social] class and entering another?” 

Here she makes excellent use of Richard Hoggart’s pioneering The Uses of Literacy (1957) by suggesting, as did Hoggart, that scholarship winners from the working class are often (invariably?) split in their class loyalties as they “cross” from a lower to a higher one. Then there is the question of performance: How difficult would it have been to memorize all or even part of this long poem for an 11-year-old boy from a Lancashire mill town in 1894? It would, at any rate, be a rather different challenge from being able to recite, “The boy stood on the burning deck.”

For Edmund Gosse, who wrote a biography of Thomas Gray, the Elegy’s “balanced perfection” made it, more than any other English poem, “the ideal object for literary study.” And, from the outset, it admirably passed the critics’ test for value. Dr. Johnson excepted it from Gray’s other poems, which he disliked, and wrote famously that it “abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.” A hundred years later, when Arnold (in “The Study of Poetry”) disparaged 18th-century English poetry as too prose-like (Dryden and Pope were “classics of our prose”), Gray, for him, was the true poetical classic who, above all, “lived with the great poets .  .  . with the Greeks.” Then, in another century, when the new-critic Cleanth Brooks demonstrated in The Well-Wrought Urn that irony and paradox were to be found in all great poems, the Elegy more than passed the test, even though its sober, fairly conventional stanza form might look as if “straight” sentiments rather than complex ironical ones characterized its expression. 

Overall, Robson’s book has no single “thesis,” but branches out in so many challenging directions that such a unifying concept would be a simplification. Of the biographical, familial anecdotes she brings to bear, one is about a young girl in an elementary school in London’s Bethnal Green (a very poor district) who stands up to recite “He fell among thieves,” an imperial poem of sensational violence by a now-forgotten poet, Sir Henry Newbolt. Did she and her classmates ever think about the difference between their cramped lives and the heroic glory celebrated in the poem? The reciter was Eileen Adams, Robson’s grandmother, “sharp as a tack and at the top of her class,” who would leave school at 14 to work in an East End sweatshop, marry at 20, and then contract the tuberculosis that kept her a semi-invalid throughout her life.

In another scenario, Robson imagines herself as a student in a public elementary school, sometime between 1870 and 1920, when she would perhaps have memorized a fine ballad, “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” by another forgotten poet, Thomas Campbell. In fact, she writes, her education contained no recitation of poems, and certainly not one as “popular” as the Campbell poem, which she did not discover until she was in her forties. After quoting the ballad in full, she doesn’t make the case that it is an unjustly neglected poem, nor one that everyone should know: “Instead, I will just say this: I would have liked to have had ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ with me for all those years.”  

Having spent more decades than Robson did without reading, let alone memorizing, “Lord Ullin’s Daughter,” I am grateful to Robson for its belated discovery.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.