Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem
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Many people in Great Britain and the United States can recall elderly relatives who remembered long stretches of verse learned at school decades earlier, yet most of us were never required to recite in class. Heart Beats is the first book to examine how poetry recitation came to assume a central place in past curricular programs, and to investigate when and why the once-mandatory exercise declined. Telling the story of a lost pedagogical practice and its wide-ranging effects on two sides of the Atlantic, Catherine Robson explores how recitation altered the ordinary people who committed poems to heart, and changed the worlds in which they lived.
Heart Beats begins by investigating recitation's progress within British and American public educational systems over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and weighs the factors that influenced which poems were most frequently assigned. Robson then scrutinizes the recitational fortunes of three short works that were once classroom classics: Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." To conclude, the book considers W. E. Henley's "Invictus" and Rudyard Kipling's "If--," asking why the idea of the memorized poem arouses such different responses in the United States and Great Britain today.
Focusing on vital connections between poems, individuals, and their communities, Heart Beats is an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry.
the window at the driving rain or the falling leaves. When I made it to secondary school in 1973 as a member of the first year’s intake in the new comprehensive system, English—now the subject of separately time-tabled lessons and with its own dedicated teacher—was still connected, by and large, to what was out of the window. Our reading matter—Kes, A Kind of Loving, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner—was as gritty, as northern, as contemporary, and as depressed, as the landscape of
eighteenth-century volumes, continued to exert a perceptible and enduring influence upon the recitation of literary selections in American classrooms. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century, a limited number of textbooks dominated what were effectively only two stages of reading within the classroom. For the rudiments of literacy, the most prevalent manuals were the New England Primer, still holding firm into the first three decades of the nineteenth century, and Noah Webster’s
laid out the poetic curriculum in the United States became increasingly likely to name individual works for memorization. While the poems assigned to the youngest two or three year-groups in elementary education on both sides of the Atlantic tended to belong more obviously to the category of “juvenile literature” than to Arnold’s and Eliot’s desired “real literature,” here too an author’s repute carried weight: certain apparently simple and sufficiently short works by poets with canonical
founding documents, official or unofficial, of the public elementary systems in these two nations; consequently the practice, at that time formally continuous with their schools’ general practices, became encoded, so to speak, in the DNA of mass education. Once established within their regimens, regimens famously slow to change and especially prone to the repetition of the tried and tested, the memorized poem proved to be remarkably tenacious. If verse recitation began its career in popular
literary pieces, often penetrating as deeply into their consciousnesses as the memorized poem. “ ‘O measureless might, ineffable love’ and ‘Who hath believed our report’ sound to me now as no other words ever sound,” records Albert Mansbridge (b. 1876), founder of the Workers Educational Association, in his autobiography, The Trodden Road (12). In church or chapel, Sunday school, morning assembly, or scripture lesson, children could thrill to what Patricia Beer calls the “rich and splendid” words