In Darwin, Australia, sometime in 1958, an old man lay dying in hospital. He asked to see—of all people—the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge. They didn’t know each other, but Muggeridge was touring Australia and the old man had heard him on the radio. As Muggeridge recalled it, this “wizened old fellow who had spent much of his life in the bush” was clearly very close to the end. He was also “quite blind.” Muggeridge sat there awkwardly:
I just couldn’t think of anything to say and felt the silent reproach of his dead eyes. Then, suddenly, there came into my mind what Gloucester says in King Lear when Edgar commiserates with him on his blindness—I stumbled when I saw. Just five simple, ordinary words, but the effect was immediate and terrific. My man loved them, and kept saying them over and over. As I went out of the ward I could hear him still repeating them in a loud, joyous voice: “I stumbled when I saw.”
The publisher William Sieghart remembers standing at a crosswalk when the man next to him stepped into the road and was hit by a car that had jumped the lights. Sieghart helped to give the man CPR; an ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and Sieghart found himself back on the pavement, standing in the same spot but badly shaken. The words of Philip Larkin’s “Ambulances” came to his mind, with a description of the vehicles “closed like confessionals” that pass through “All streets in time,” and of the onlookers who
sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress . . .
Bleak stuff even by Larkin’s standards, yet at that instant it was what Sieghart needed. “That poem,” he has said, “helped me make sense of . . . an incredibly traumatic moment.”
Muggeridge and Sieghart knew these verses so well that they sprang to mind just when they were needed. What they provided was not insight or inspiration so much as companionship. A poem can console even when it has nothing consoling to say—much as a person can, simply by being there. A few years ago, a Cambridge University research project surveyed hundreds of poetry-lovers on the effects of memorization. The researchers discovered that people who had learned a poem by heart frequently referred to it as though it were alive. One interviewee told the researchers: “A poem is like a person—if I met you next week I wouldn’t expect you to be the same.” Another said the poems he knew had become “like personal friends deeply rooted in my head.”
In early-twentieth-century British schools, poetry memorization was a near-universal practice. “The other day in the trenches we shouted your Lepanto,” John Buchan wrote to G. K. Chesterton in June 1915. Over the century since, the distrust of “rote learning” has done much to displace memorization from the curriculum, but many of us still have a few lines in our heads from school. At some point in my twenties—I can’t remember why—I started making it a habit. Now I’ve forgotten as much as I’ve learned, but I treasure the poems that have remained.
The first trick of memorization is to be honest: Which poems, or passages from poems, do you actually enjoy? The second trick is not to bite off more than you can chew: Though there are some prodigious reciters who can reel off dozens of stanzas, I find a range of twelve to thirty lines is about right. Rhyme and meter make it easier. As for memory techniques, the most effective one I know is to write out the poem shortly before going to sleep. Cover up the text and try to remember the first line. Check your memory against the poem and correct it; or if you can’t remember the line at all, copy it out. Then do the same with the second line. And so on. When you wake up, repeat the exercise. Over the course of a few nights, the poem settles into your mind with surprisingly little effort.
There are many good reasons to learn poems by heart: It’s fun, in the first place (try learning Alice Oswald’s “Wedding,” a riddle and a poem rolled into one); having a poem up your sleeve is a handy get-out-of-jail card if you’re ever called on to “sing something” and have a terrible voice (Belloc’s comic verse is useful here). Shared knowledge of a poem can break the ice between two people, like the discovery of a mutual friend. In 1944, the British officer Patrick Leigh Fermor led a daring expedition on Crete, ambushing the German general Heinrich Kreipe and smuggling him into the mountains. At some point General Kreipe happened to quote a few lines of Horace, and Leigh Fermor, recognizing them, finished the poem. It was “As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” Sharing the poem, the captive and the captor could not see each other as enemies.
There’s also the way that a poem, when memorized, can accompany you through life, gradually revealing its meanings and subtleties. At times of disappointment, I have sometimes turned to James McAuley’s “Nocturnal,” written in late-1950s Australia after his political faction had suffered a defeat. It begins:
I walked abroad at night
Out of the world’s heat where our
hopes were dying.
Only by saying these words aloud, more than once, and perhaps over some time, do you get their full impact. You feel, for instance, how in that second line all the strong stresses are crowded into the first half—“Out of the world’s heat”—and the rest of the line dies away into silence. It expresses both halves of a single emotion: feeling disappointed, but at the same time moving away from the disappointment and leaving it behind. Reciting “Nocturnal” doesn’t produce an epiphany, but it makes sense of a feeling.
Amanda Gorman, who performed her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s inauguration, recently told Time magazine that the poet’s task is to inspire hope amid gloom: “to observe that darkness, to listen to it, but also to lead people out of the shade.” Yet often, what poetry readers really want is for someone to stay with them in the darkness.
Poetic effects are hard to describe but easy to experience. By learning it off by heart, you discover how resonant is the note of nostalgia in Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop,” where the pauses at the end of the lines promise a surprise, but then return us to where we were. Reciting these lines conjures up an instant of dreamlike stillness:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name . . .
Or you discover the note of contempt and decisiveness in King Henry’s rejection of his onetime companion Falstaff:
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But being awak’d, I do despise my dream. . . .
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self.
The staccato consonants in a line like “But being awak’d, I do despise my dream” encourage you to spit the line out. To one reader, it will sound chilling: a sudden, harsh abandonment of an old friend. To another, it might almost express heroism: the moment you finally cast off some bad habit that has dragged you down. And perhaps, for one and the same reader, its meaning will shift back and forth over time. Books are sometimes published claiming that poetry can “change your life,” which is probably an exaggeration. But your life can change the meaning of a poem, and that’s not nothing.
A teacher I know, who encourages his students to memorize poems, has a neat way of explaining it. “Cognitive scientists like to talk about our long-term memory and our ‘working memory,’” he tells me.
Once we’ve memorized a poem, it becomes lodged in our long-term memory, which frees up our working memory to reflect more deeply on its meaning and significance. The memorized poem becomes like a precious stone that we always have in our pocket and which we can pick up whenever we have an idle (or an anxious) moment.
Because good poems concentrate so much thought and emotion into such a small space, they can anticipate our own reactions. I was walking with a friend at Cape Cornwall, a headland at the very southwest corner of Great Britain. On a blustery day, when you climb to the highest point and look out at the black Brisons rocks being lashed by the waves, it’s as though the wind is trying to uproot you from the ground. As we walked down, my friend reminded me of the Ted Hughes poem about a house creaking in a ferocious gale, which begins: “This house has been far out at sea all night.” The line does not even mention the wind, yet it evokes it better than anything we could have said ourselves.
The best-remembered words are often those describing the natural world. According to my informal survey, people remember phrases like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil”; Seamus Heaney’s “big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”; and Larkin’s “Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May.” Each of these joins a complicated thought with a very simple experience—of bright light, of the wind, of leaves rustling. But those experiences turn out to be inexhaustible. Our responses to the world around us are, at one level, the same as the response of a cat basking in the sun, or a dog splashing around in a stream. But there’s another level, too: something that is in neither our conscious mind nor our animal nature.
For Ted Hughes—a great advocate of learning poems and author of a short handbook on the subject—poetry could help us get in touch with that other level. In a 1992 letter, Hughes suggested that
while we are all together, chattering away with each other, responding to every bit of news, interested in every next thing, countering every argument with an argument . . . we are living on an utterly superficial plane that shuts us out from what is truly happening to us. Only when we get away from this, inwards . . . only then are we open to the intuitions that propose a solution to the big problems, the total problems.
As with much of Hughes’s theorizing, it’s not entirely clear how this fits together. Can we really trust these “intuitions” to come up with “a solution to the big problems, the total problems”? But he was onto something when he said that the fascination with the news and with every argument and counterargument would cut us off from a part of our lives. Twenty-nine years on, some of the world’s most powerful companies are dedicated to keeping us on that “utterly superficial plane that shuts us out from what is truly happening.” It’s too late to turn our backs on the internet. But we can do something to resist its worst side by finding a poem to love and learning it by heart.
Dan Hitchens writes from London.