In Defense of Learning By Heart

When I was in grade nine, my English teacher had us memorise three speeches from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  One of the other students made a great fuss about being forced to memorise poetry, arguing that it was unnecessary, old-fashioned, and silly.  After a great deal of discussion, the teacher finally said that he was still going to put the question on the test, but that it would be optional, for bonus points.

I believe I learned “There is a tide in the affairs of man,” speech; certainly that’s the only one I can remember even parts of today.  Most of the class did memorise one (as it turned out, that was all there was — we had to write out one of the three speeches on the test).  What I remember was how rueful the student who’d complained was afterwards.  Coming out of the class after the test, she said that she wished she hadn’t made such a fuss about it, as she had learned one of the speeches anyway and could have done with the extra points.

Now, it’s true that memorising poetry is usually seen as unnecessary, old-fashioned, and silly. And I admit I don’t have very much learned by heart.  After all, I can look it up very easily, can’t I? If not in any of the many books and anthologies of poetry I have on my shelves, then certainly on the internet, with barely a pause.  It’s just the same as knowing it, knowing how to look it up, isn’t it?

Well, no.  It’s not.  Information is not the same thing as knowledge, and a bare memory that such a poem as I’m trying to remember exists is not the same as knowing it by heart.  Think about that phrase: learning by heart.  It means not only memorising it, being able to regurgitate it at a moment’s notice — that is the unlovely way of thinking about it.  Learning by heart means having that in your heart, able to touch you, able to shape your life, your thoughts, your soul’s experience.  A blustery day full of shadows and fast clouds, and I think of “Pied Beauty” or “Sea-Fever” or “High Flight” or even “Once by the Pacific.”

But I falter: I do not know them properly.  They are only echoes in my mind, a line or two is all I know, I stumble in trying to say them out loud.  I cannot speak out “The Hound of Heaven” or “Ducks” or even Anthony’s speech about the tide in the affairs of men.  This is why I put learning twelve poems by heart on my list of things to do.  These are probably seven of the twelve; perhaps I’ll learn these and open up poetry to my mind.  Looking it up is not the same thing.

I shall begin with “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  It’s not long, but whole days shout this out to me, and I want to be able to recite the epitome of the day back to them in the poet’s words. Usually I stumble after the third line, but this time, this time I shall learn it.

Here it is.

Pied Beauty — Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
   He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                        Praise him.

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