Taking it to Heart
John Mole - 22 March 2006
Is it good to be made to learn poetry by heart? There seem to me to be at least two ways of looking at this. It could be argued that if you are made to do it then it's unlikely to be the heart which is doing the learning. On the other hand what, initially, was an exercise in learning 'by rote' could be, as it were, taken to heart and become a companion for life.
At school in the 1950s we were required to learn long passages from Shakespeare and Milton for homework then next day we had to go round the class. Someone would be told to start and then, after a few lines, the teacher would point to someone else who would be expected to continue, and so on. This is not a method I would advocate but, along with learning quotations for exams, I can't deny that it provided me with an anthology of extracts which I still find myself drawing upon in various situations. For example, there's Milton's trudging, spondaic line describing hell at the beginning of 'Paradise Lost': 'Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death.' Often, when in a dark mood, I have found myself pacing about and quoting this under my breath, and often ( paradoxically ) I've found it lifting my spirits. Nowadays, it's more often the case that I read a poem and just find certain lines becoming part of my mental furniture. Sometimes they are statements: 'What will survive of us is love' ( Philip Larkin ), 'And miles to go before I sleep' ( Robert Frost ), 'Ghosts are a poet's working capital' ( Peter Scupham ), 'The art of losing isn't hard to master' ( Elizabeth Bishop ), 'The lives of children are/Dangerous to their parents' ( Louis Simpson ), 'You shall love your crooked neighbour/With your crooked heart.' ( W.H.Auden ). Sometimes they are phrases which haunt me for no apparent reason other than that they possess a mysterious beauty: 'Ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.' ( Wallace Stevens ) or seem to apply to so many circumstances: 'Not waving but drowning.' ( Stevie Smith ). What I hope this posting may do is persuade you to reply with lines or phrases from poems which you find coming into your head ( or heart ) and if there are special circumstances when they seem to apply it would be good to know this too.