Learnt by Heart

Our parents and teachers believed children could commit poetry to memory.

It was not only possible; it was desirable.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of “The Midnight ride of Paul Revere,” photographed in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

Not only possible and desirable, but important.

We could memorize rhymed, metrical verse. And not just rhymed, metrical verse, but any form of poetic, exalted language. And that was important. 

Types of Poetry

Poets today concentrate on depth, originality, subtlety. Poems probe the psyche, exploit the mutability of language, deconstruct human relationships—as if human relationships were not deconstructed enough already. 

Poetry has become—I almost hate to say it—an intellectual exercise.

Our poems used to tell stories, or spin metaphors, of personal, spiritual, or civic virtue. Poetry was less a private thing and more a public thing. It was common coin of the realm, a language we understood together.

If you spoke of Barbara Fritchie, your uncle might chime in:

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
John Greenleaf Whittier in 1885. Public domain.

Barbara Fritchie was an elderly widow in Frederick, Maryland. Her legend, spoken in verse, had meaning for us all. A Unionist, she allegedly stood up to Stonewall Jackson and his troops by flying the national flag from her upstairs window. When the general told his troops to take down her flag, she spoke out.

John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, wrote up the fabled encounter in thirty rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter. The poem was revered not only for the old woman’s patriotic outburst but for its dramatic context. Her words pricked the heart of the Confederate general: 

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

Who speaks of Barbara Fritchie nowadays?  Nobody. The only thing that brought her to our lips occasionally in the old days was that we all knew the poem. The poem and its message, encapsulating the lesson of the Civil War, are mostly forgotten these days.

And yet, we’re still fighting the Civil War.

Not Only Verse

The poetry in which we children were marinated encompassed not only verse, but also prose:  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution and Jefferson’s introit to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That  whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Such words gave us a common mental furniture that let us live together. 

Maybe that’s not so much the case anymore. 

Entertainment Also

Poetry also served more frivolous, pedestrian ends. Hazel Felleman’s classic anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People, contains a whole section dedicated to “Humor and Whimsey.” It includes “Strictly Germ-Proof” by Arthur Guiterman, which tells the adventures of the Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup. It contains “Evolution” by Langdon Smith (“When you were a tadpole and I was a fish / In the Paleozoic Time . . . “). 

Carmen Possum. Photo by Cody Pope, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5. 

For you classical scholars there is even a poem, “Carmen Possum” that features a hilarious mix of Latin and English: 

The nox was lit by lux of Luna,
And ’twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o’er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus. . . . 

Et, for the record, cetera. 

Best Loved Poems of the American People was first published in 1936 and includes more than 575 poems. They are old-fashioned. They are also superior to much of today’s poetry. These verses, high or low in theme, have stood the test of time.

From the Heart

But there is another dimension to this business of learning poetry by heart, Dear Reader. I have saved it for last, because it is best.

If learning poetry helped us bind our own fortunes to that of the commonwealth, and if it gave us enjoyment and even belly laughs besides, it also imprinted our souls with deep truths of human life that stood us, and are standing us, in good stead as we go through this mortal experience.

Miss Ruth Breiseth was your stereotypical old maid English teacher of yore—prissy, pedantic, and tyrannical. She measured the margins of our handwritten compositions with a ruler and marked us down if they varied more than a hair from one inch on the left and three-quarters of an inch on the right. If there were two Toms in one class, never mind their surnames, she addressed them as “Thomas One” and “Thomas Two.” The Toms were expected to know their numbers. The Marys, too. 

And she made us memorize poetry. Not just any poetry, either. High-class poetry, mostly American poems from the nineteenth century.

There are deep lessons in some of those poems, things you can carry with you through life and come to appreciate more as you get older. 

Byant, c. 1876. Photo by José Maria Mora. Public domain.

William Cullen Bryant, addressing a waterfowl, observed

There is a Power, whose care 
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,— 
The desert and illimitable air 
Lone wandering, but not lost. 

This is a religious message, yet it was taught in the public schools. A funny thing about education: Once you learn something, especially by heart, it’s apt to get stuck there.

Your New Favorite Writer’s own life seems to be following the pattern suggested to Oliver Wendell Holmes by a lowly shellfish:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, 
As the swift seasons roll! 
Leave thy low-vaulted past! 
Let each new temple, nobler than the last, 
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, 
Till thou at length art free, 
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
—“The Chambered Nautilus,” 1858
Cutaway view of a nautilus shell. Photo by Chris 73, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

What of the Future?

At the height of the covid pandemic, my wife and I were given the unanticipated pleasure of providing a free-form curriculum every Wednesday for our grandchildren Elsie and Tristan, then eleven and eight years old, respectively.

My part boiled down to a weekly lesson in “literature.” We sang songs and read stories. I introduced them to poetry and even encouraged them to memorize a bit of it. 

They both liked Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

Committing all four stanzas to memory was a harder slog. Today’s children do not expect to encounter such a challenge.

Alexander Pope, portrait by Michael Dahl, c. 1727. Public domain.

One item I did force them to memorize, a simple couplet from Alexander Pope:

Honor and shame from no condition rise; 
Act well your part, there all the honor lies.  

If Elsie and Tristan can carry those two lines with them—learn them by heart, take it to heart—it will be a great comfort to their old-fashioned grandpa.


Larry F. SommersYour New Favorite Writer

2 thoughts on “Learnt by Heart

  1. I have the book of American poetry that you refer to; my godfather gifted it to me when I was a kid. Now I have to go pluck it off the shelf as a treat for myself and read a few of the poems again. I love recalling poems we memorized in our youth in school. Reciting a memorized poem is meditative and calming, and that’s something kids need today, so I hope wise teachers make them memorize a nice poem or two. I happen to love the poetic lyrics about Rudolph at this time of year, and the CBS one-hour story based on it. I love rhyming picture books, but the industry is almost agains rhyming in picture books, which always seems odd to me EXCEPT that a lot of agents and editors have had too much bad rhyming material sent to them, unfortunately. But shouldn’t we all write poetry, good or bad just as an exercise? I think so. We need “bad poetry” clubs just like we have book clubs maybe??? Lots of laughs, I’m sure.

  2. Yes. Poetry ought to be a part of our lives.

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