I offer a frigid smile any time people go into nostalgic raptures about the benefits of memorizing poetry. This is because, back in the day when adults insisted that children must memorize poetry, I made such an unhappy meal of it. My father had me learn Psalm 23, which was easy. But the next psalm he prescribed, about hanging those harps on a tree (Why?) and weeping when we remembered Zion, would not stick in my head. I memorized Blake’s “Tyger” but could not retain his “Lamb.” I inadvertently got “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” off pat while my brother repeatedly recited it in our nursery—he never mastered it. That was my sole and unrewarded success in this dark art. At school, our English teacher, Miss Sturgis, commonly known as Stooge, required us to learn the scene early in Macbeth where the Thane of Cawdor arrives at the King’s Castle. Stooge liked to perform her starring role as a pedagogical hawk. As Stooge took our individual recitals, I was the only one who could not say it. So I can at best politely bend my head to one side in a half-nod when people quote literary critics like George Steiner to affirm that memorizing poetry is literally learning by heart.
Stooge’s passing public sentence of damnation or blessing on her English students, a magisterial art to which she clearly thrilled, was already out of date when I was at school. It was killed stone dead by the educational nostrum that held it a teacher’s first duty to inculcate not knowledge, but self-esteem in one’s pupils. I cannot defend Stooge root and branch, but it’s a rum truth that few things do more to build confidence than returning to a subject one already knows a good deal about. Children chanting their times-tables are brimming with self-esteem. Memorization is a great builder of self-worth, and not only because a party-piece is a priceless asset for showing off—a fact well known to the student who came up to me after the first class and recited a list of all the books in the Bible.
Self-esteem does matter in education, because the “can-do” feeling makes learning possible. Part of the joy of learning more about a field of which one already has the rudiments is that memory recognizes its old friends. When we master an area in which we have for some time been apprentices, the multiple acts of recognition imbue the task of learning with a sense of security and fulfillment. Nothing could destroy a student’s confidence so thoroughly as knowing so little that every topic he confronts is entirely new to him. The debate about memorization has more often emphasized the crushing effects of failure at learning set pieces by heart (and it can be crushing), and less often observed the positive reinforcement we experience when we reacquaint ourselves with well-known stories in the course of learning new ones. The old rediscovered gives meaning and structure to the new. It’s not memorizing the piece of writing that gives us joy, but the act of returning to this grain of permanence in our memories.
The Romantic poets dwelt on this experience, and based their poetry on what they called “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Wordsworth’s poems are not about the direct experience of the daffodils, or of boat stealing and being chased back home by the mountain spirits (I clearly didn’t get The Prelude by heart), but about remembering experience after the event. The play of memory upon the delightful experience is what evokes the muse. C. S. Lewis follows in the Romantics’ footsteps when he recalls that he was delighted by a toy forest his brother constructed in a tin, but was positively “surprised by joy” when he later remembered that toy forest. The Romantics connect memory, imagination, and the sense of awe. Perhaps this is why so many, down to the inter-war generations of which Stooge as a member, set so much store by memorizing reams of Victorian verse.
My mother, one of the Steiner quoters, could entertain us on long car journeys with her interior treasure garden of memorized poems. The hardcore bohemian generation of the 1950s valued memorization not because it grants self-esteem but because of a hazy recollection of having learned that memory is the seat of wisdom. The softer hippy generation who followed them remembered nothing but pop lyrics. And not always even that—recall poor Patti Smith forgetting Hard Rain at the concert for Dylan’s Nobel prize.
The Romantics were ambivalent about memorization, as I am, and doubtless Patti Smith is too, after her unfortunate downfall in Stockholm. On the one hand, literal rote learning is out, because it is machine-like and non-creative. But on the other hand, remembering our childhood sense of awe and wonder, and beyond that, recollecting the “clouds of glory” we left behind at infancy in some Neo-Platonic higher realm, and even further, “recalling” our origins in the realm of light, is the nub of the Romantic religious compass or conscience. They figured, perhaps correctly, that the religious sense finds its cozy den in the memory. Our religious sense reclines and naps on a chaise longue in our innermost memory. If our memories are too vague to awaken that sense for the divine, it will snore indefinitely. I do not wish to be dogmatic about it, but perhaps the loud and rousing chant of some thoroughly acquired anthem telling of the glories of the Lord can best pierce its rumbling slumbers. Perhaps a hymn inadvertently inculcated by hearing it sung time and again will play the part of the Prince, and, as rote memory enters the sanctuary of deep memory, the Sleeping Beauty of the religious intuition will awake and recall her high origins. Our religious sense is the Proverbial sluggard who turns over in bed like a door on its hinges (Proverbs 26:14): One way of awakening it is to douse it with memories.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.