Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall . . .
This is one of the first pieces of verse that I memorized and I'll bet it was for you, too. (I'm very careful with eggs to this day.) Most of us learned "by heart" the nursery rhymes and other verses we encountered as small children, often before we could read.
Oh, how I love to go up in a swing . . .
Rote learning, teaching by asking children to memorize things, is so far out of fashion at the moment that you'd probably get less criticism if you robbed a bank.
Aye, tear her tattered ensign down . . .
But when I was in school it was the tail end of the era when children were asked to memorize things: the multiplication table, the US states and their capitals, the periodic table, and most important to me and to the author of this book, poetry.
Build thee more stately mansions, oh my soul . . .
Even in college, my Shakespeare professor made us memorize: Hamlet's soliloquy, the sceptred isle speech from Richard II, the quality of mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice. "What news on the Rialto?" from the same play, I memorized on my own. (Apparently nobody else did, however, as when I say that I get blank stares.)
But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead . . .
I spotted that quote in a novel a while ago and the author wrote to tell me no other reviewer had noticed it.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice . . .
Now comes Catherine Robson, who grew up in England and is now a professor at New York University. In Heart Beats she makes the case for requiring children to memorize poetry. She talks at length about three poems that were often assigned to children to memorize, Casabianca (The boy stood on the burning deck . . .), Elegy in a Country Churchyard (The curfew tolls the knell of parting day . . .), and The Burial of Sir John Mooore after Corunna (Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note). I don't know that last one but I know parts of the other by heart, and if you are reading this blog you probably know them too.
Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair.
I'm talking about this book without having read it ($45, no Amazon discount, new and so not eligible for interlibrary loan, Santa tapped out.) I have read instead a lengthy review by William H Pritchard who is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College. (I wonder if my SATs are good enough to get me into Amherst where I could major in English and take courses from Professor Pritchard.)
Alone, alone, all all alone, alone on a wide wide sea . . .
Robson feels strongly that memorizing poetry, preferably poetry with a strong meter, contributed something to a child's education that they could absorb no other way. She is not concerned so much about whether a poem is "good" or "bad" but rather values verse because it gave children something that they took with them, whether they were to leave school at 14 and work in a coal mine or were part of a family who read aloud or recited poetry in front of the fire in the evening.
The mirror cracked from side to side, the curse has come upon me cried the Lady of Shallott . . .
Because I'm just old enough I did a lot of memorizing in school and so I carry with me hundreds of verses that are there when I need them. I'm sorry, as is the author, that children today will not be given that treasure.
The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly; Life like a dome of many-colored glass, Stains the white radiance of Heaven; Until Death shatters it to fragments.