Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem


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 core of this book addresses the intersection between everyday life and a mere two hundred lines of poetry: Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca” (1826), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), and Charles Wolfe’s “Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” (1817). All three works, widely read in schools and continuously reprinted in anthologies, were memorized and recited, whether willingly or unwillingly, in whole or in part, by significant proportions of the population in English-speaking countries for substantial stretches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. in consequence, these verses carried the potential to touch and alter the worlds of the huge numbers of people who took them to heart. This book examines the vital connections that were formed between my chosen poems and individuals, communities, discourses, beliefs, and behaviors—primarily in Great Britain, but also, at specific junctures, in the United States of America. in all three case studies, the themes of the given poem and the peculiarities of its movement through time and space determine the stories told and the histories explored. At the same time, these chapters contribute to the book’s general examination of the phenomenon of widespread poetry memorization in two national cultures, and consider what might be thought of as the successive phases in the life cycle of the memorized poem. the first study concentrates upon recitation as a physical experience for relatively young children; the second addresses some of the later psychological dimensions inherent within adolescents’ and adults’ internalization of a poem; and the third focuses upon adults only, asking under what circumstances a work long held within the self might suddenly deliver new and vital meaning.

When the topic of verse memorization is raised today, the invocation is often couched within a lament, a mournful regret for the loss of a world in which every individual could readily recite fine-sounding lines from a supply of poems recognizable to all. in Britain the lament is frequently tempered by an acknowledgment that the methods used to achieve such a laudable outcome were perhaps less than ideal and possibly counterproductive. Simple elegiac celebrations are not unknown: Gordon Brown, just days before he assumed the post of prime minister in 2007, could be . . .

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