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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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.