I have been teaching a 19th century British poetry course at a senior retirement center this semester, and we’ve been discussing the virtues of memorization. That’s because virtually all of the students were required to memorize poetry when they were young, and some of them, now in their seventies and eighties, can still recall passages.
This has made the course a delight because many are recognizing lines from poems they haven’t thought about for years. Yet they can still recite lines from Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger,” Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” I’m sure they will recall other passages when we get to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. They can also recite poems that few if any children know today but that my father read to me as a child, like James Whitcomb Riley’s “Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie.” (Yes, I spelled that as he wrote it.) We’re all reliving memories from long ago.
They provide wonderful examples of how they have used that memorized poetry. Bob quoted Tennyson’s inspiring last line from “Ulysses,” “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” as a passage that he has often turns to when times get tough. Others had recalled “Ozymandias,” as I had, when certain dictators were overthrown during the Arab Spring.
B. Frank had a great childhood story. A grade school teacher had insisted that he memorize “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” but he decided that he liked Kipling better and belted out the lines,
You may talk o’ gin an’ beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
This is, of course, from “Gunga Din” and it corresponds far better to a boy’s energy than a celebration of daffodils:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Nine-year-old boys don’t do vacant or pensive. B. Frank told me he received an F, and I could only think, “Shame on the teacher for not figuring out what a young boy would like.” But I was glad that she at least stressed the importance of memorization.
I set up the course as I did in part because I wanted to go back to a time when poetry was still widely read. Indeed, a number of the class members remembered when poems would appear daily in the newspapers. Janie, for instance, for years carried around a poem that she had clipped from The Baltimore Sun.
I hold T. S. Eliot and the modernists partially responsible for why poetry disappeared from newspapers and other such forums. Suspicious of Victorian sentimentality and open expressions of feeling, they became elliptical and allusive and their poetry became difficult to read. That in itself is not bad as one wants a variety of poetic styles. But they also mocked lovers of sentimental poetry.
The most notorious example of this was Cleanth Brooks’s and Robert Penn Warren’s attack on Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” in their influential textbook Understanding Poetry (1938). “Trees” used to be a standard memorization exercise, and you may even know the first two lines: “I think that I shall never see/A poem as a lovely as a tree.” (Here it is in its entirety.) Declaring it to be a bad poem with a deformed metaphor foisted on grade school children by old maid schoolteachers (the authors clearly had some mother issues), they turned poetry into an activity requiring the intervention of experts. “Like science,” they wrote, “literature (and especially poetry) uses a specialized language for the purposes of precision in matters different from science.”
Understanding Poetry got some people to change their reading habits. But with others, it just got them to stop reading poetry altogether. Poetry became the preserve of English teachers. Partly as a result, poets today don’t enjoy the bestseller status that Wordsworth, Tennyson, and the Brownings did in the 19th century.
My course, functioning as a trip through memory (and memorization) lane, is reminding us all how much we like poetry. We’re having a blast.