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.


Lines I remember from my school days include 'What is this time if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare' and 'Is there anybody there said the traveller'. But I must say John, for lots of people of my generation, learning poetry by heart got a bad name because of the way it was forced upon us when we were children. I remember being terrified when the time came to recite 'this week's poem' in case I got it wrong. Sometimes it surprises me that I am still a poetry lover after all those negative experiences!

It sounds, Jan, as if your experiences of learning by rote were similar to mine, and I wonder if we are of the same generation ( you're discrete on this point ). I suppose it all comes down to the spirit in which a teacher requires the learning to be done. My wife, for example, remembers a wonderful English teacher
thanks to whom not only has 'The Mill on the Floss' remained her favourite novel but John Drinkwater's poem 'Moonlit Apples' - which she was set to learn -is her benchmark for judging lyrics. She has never forgotten its imagery and quotes it to me often when she's working on an illustration. Assuming that we are of an age it would be interesting to hear the views of some younger visitors to this site. Is learning by heart ( or rote ) a part of the curriculum? Just about everything else seems to be!

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments

Glossary term


A pattern of sound in poetry, particularly clear when read aloud.

A tour of the Archive with David Almond

I love this archive. It's an important reminder that all literature has its roots in the human voice. Black print on...

Featured Guided Tours