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Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem
Catherine Robson
Many people in Great Britain and the United States can recall elderly relatives who remembered long stretches of verse learned at school decades earlier, yet most of us were never required to recite in class. Heart Beats is the first book to examine how poetry recitation came to assume a central place in past curricular programs, and to investigate when and why the once-mandatory exercise declined.
Telling the story of a lost pedagogical practice and its wide-ranging effects on two sides of the Atlantic, Catherine Robson explores how recitation altered the ordinary people who committed poems to heart, and changed the worlds in which they lived.

Heart Beats begins by investigating recitation's progress within British and American public educational systems over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and weighs the factors that influenced which poems were most frequently assigned. Robson then scrutinizes the recitational fortunes of three short works that were once classroom classics: Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." To conclude, the book considers W. E. Henley's "Invictus" and Rudyard Kipling's "If--," asking why the idea of the memorized poem arouses such different responses in the United States and Great Britain today.

Focusing on vital connections between poems, individuals, and their communities, Heart Beats is an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry.

Catherine Robson is an associate professor in the English Department at New York University. She is the author of Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton).

I was alerted to this book on account of my involvement with the Poetry by Heart project here in the UK. Catherine Robson makes reference to a similar project in the US: “Poetry Out Loud” is a recitation contest instituted in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts, with funding from the Poetry Foundation. The relevance of Robson’s book may well reside in these new initiatives but the focus is primarily on the history of the memorized poem within previous educational regimes.

Many of us will have only the vaguest sense of this history: some may have experienced it first-hand; others may have picked up on mere echoes – teachers in more recent times occasionally considering that learning poetry by heart is a good thing. Robson however has undertaken a major piece of research that articulates the complex role of poetry recitation within the development of mass education on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book presents two distinct lines of enquiry, albeit connected ones. The first part explores the reasons why the memorized poem emerged (and declined) as such a potent force within the classroom; the second part presents a trio of Case Studies exploring the extraordinary influence of 3 poems in particular, each of which had considerable eminence and longevity within the tradition, resonating (sometimes ironically) with pupils’ lives for years to come. Each case study pursues a theme: in the case of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” it is the concept of social mobility and “improvement”; with Hemans’ “Casabianca” – best known for its opening line, “The boy stood on the burning deck” – the subject is stoicism in both the poem and the struggling pupil; Charles Wolfe’s “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” is related not only to individuals finding solace but also to mass memorialization. All three case studies offer a fascinating exploration of poetry’s grip on the individual and society.

Part One is equally detailed, though with reference to the development of public education, rather than particular poems. British and American attitudes are compared, with Americans seeming to have a fonder memory of the process, perhaps because it dissolved with rather more grace.

The history begins with the memorized poem in a “service” role, its mnemonic properties an aid to reading and learning the scriptures. It was a self-sustaining tradition, young teachers basing their work on what they themselves had been taught. Reciting poetry provided evidence of completing a programme of study, and of “scholarly prowess”. There was of course “due attention to pronunciation, accent and emphasis” (p49), but beyond this concern with elocution there was also a belief in “the gifts the individual will gain from the elevated texture and content of poetic language” (p71); the memorized poem was considered “to impart a tone to one’s spiritual system for life, rich and pure enough to outsing all baser and cruder songs” (p70). We would not use such phrases today, though some of the sentiment undoubtedly remains.

The evolution of the tradition makes fascinating reading, and the “demise” is well explained. Whatever “emotional sustenance” was (and still is) acknowledged, the rejection of something that smacked so much of “enforced drill” was inevitable, especially when newer concepts of child development  – and literature – began to take hold. As Robson puts it: “In essence, the change drew upon a seemingly paradoxical combination of ideas about freedom and rigor. On the liberatory front, poetry came to bear an increasingly important association with creativity, individuality, and self-expression, and the child’s necessary access thereto ... On the other, rigorous side of things, moves towards discussion and analysis within the literature lesson served to make the conflicted relation between recitation and comprehension appear ever more awkward.” She stresses the impact of the new watchword, “relevance”: “if the contents of a stretch of text did not connect in obvious ways to a child’s immediate experiences in the world, then it was deemed in many quarters to have no place in popular elementary schooling.” (p84)

Today, despite (or because of) current government proposals, we continue to resist things being learnt by rote, rather than discussed. We may well raise a smile at the idea of “verses with long pedagogical service records”, but what are we to make of the enduring popularity of poems embraced by the public without enforcement? In her “Afterword”, Robson discusses “Invictus” and “If–”, “two hugely popular poems that have gained their place in the popular imagination without schoolroom support.” She explores ideas of communal identity, patriotism, and pride in one’s literary heritage. “Invictus”, through its “meshing of the literal and metaphorical”, “offers reciters an open opportunity to understand its expression not as the contingent utterances of somebody else in a particular historical moment or geographical site, but rather as entirely personal to themselves in their own time of trial.” “If–”, voted here as the nation’s favourite poem, makes a similar connection. It might not be a poem favoured in academia, but perhaps this discrepancy deserves further examination.

In the heyday of the memorized poem, the emphasis was on joy in “beauty”. More recently, pupils are likely to have been presented with an altogether different, more savage aesthetic, the war poetry, say, of Wilfred Owen. The danger, of course, is in any literary diet too limited or prescribed. Pupils are quick to resent a command to learn a poem selected by anyone else; faced with a fabulous choice, however, their reaction may well be more positive. New “relevant” poetry may have no “default connection to the practice of recitation”, but it is capable of introducing pupils to an emotional depth and range beyond their own horizons, a depth that is perhaps most keenly felt if its essential memorability is addressed.

Heart Beats is a richly rewarding investigation that may well change a lot of minds about the value of learning poetry by heart. The virtue of reciting it is perhaps a separate issue.

Paul Munden    
(Writing in Education No. 60)

Additional Information:
Sun 1 Jan 2012
Princeton University Press
Issue Number:
ISBN: 9780691119366
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