I love memorizing poetry, from Shakespeare to Luci Shaw, from Donne to Chesterton, and so I thought I’d share a post with some of reasons for I love poetry—and, of course, plenty of excerpts from what I’ve memorized!
In a time when we casually associate memorizing things with drudgery, I want to point out first of all that memorizing and reciting worthy poetry can be a joy. I know that memorizing is a tough skill to learn; I used to be very bad at it. It was years before I really appreciated Psalm 23, one of my early memorywork pieces. But my mom persevered and made me keep on working on memorizing, and now I’m memorizing on my own, choosing poetry and working on it. Memorizing and reciting poetry is probably my best consciously-developed habit, and mostly I do it for joy. I just love the words, love reading them and memorizing them and reciting them. It’s truly a wonderful thing to have some of the great heights of the English language kept always with you, almost made a part of you, like having mighty genii ready at your call. It is beautiful and joyful to memorize these words combined by skill and the gift of God into forms that can choke up your throat and make your heart go differently and your eyes feel odd when you recite them.
Death, be not proud, though some have called theeJohn Donne, “Holy Sonnet X”
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
2. A cure to loneliness and boredom
If you’re memorized enough poetry, you’ll never be lonely. While this, of course, goes beyond the strict limits of the truth, by memorizing good poetry you fill your memory with the best words of some of the greatest people in history. Whoever else is gone, Shakespeare and Donne and Chesterton will always be around to talk to.
Besides, it’s hard to be really bored once you’ve memorized sufficient amounts of poetry. Maybe there’s nothing to do, nothing pressing to think about, no books near; but you always have choice volumes ready to hand. I wonder what the ratio is between teens who, when bored, stare at their phones and teens who, when bored, recite The Ballad of the White Horse.
Before the gods that made the godsG. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill…
…And as what I’ve memorized so far runs on for another four hundred or so stanzas, I’m not likely to run out of poetry before I run out of occasion! But of course you don’t have to memorize so much; I do only because I love and want to. A few psalms and speeches from Shakespeare will take you a long way.
Not only will poetry provide instant company when you’re alone, but if you can find other people to memorize poetry as well, recitation can become a delightful community activity. I have a friend with whom I can take turns reciting, trading poems back and forth as we each enjoy what the other has read; and with my brothers I recite the poems we know in common, whether taking turns with whole poems or alternately reciting lines. Even the 8 and 5-year-olds have a few poems they know; so, while walking, Little Boy and I can recite together, one of us taking a line, then the other taking the next
Whenever I’m a shining Knight,A. A. Milne, “Knight-in-Armour”
I buckle on my armour tight;
And then I look about for things,
Like Rushings-out, and Rescuings…
Igneus, metamorphic, sedimentary. In forteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
If we can use memorization to learn facts, can’t we use it to learn far more beautiful and important matters? I think so. Many of our great good poems have wisdom that it can profit us well to learn by heart, sound in itself and incarnated in a lovely form, such as this spiritual and psychological good sense:
Thine own keen sense of wrong that thirsts for sin,S. T. Coleridge, “Forbearance”
Fear that—the spark self-kindled from within,
Which blown upon will blind thee with its glare,
Or smother’d stifle thee with noisome air.
Clap on the extinguisher, pull up the blinds,
And soon the ventilated spirit finds
Its natural daylight.
You may have observed that it is hard to immediately understand and fully appreciate great poetry. Well, of course it’s hard; what is the use of great poetry if it merely says what we already know in words of a level which we use to discuss the grocery list? But though it is necessary for great poetry to be above us for it to be great poetry, it can be too easy to see this as a barrier and give up on poetry. Yet if great poetry is above us, it is above not to make us feel low, but to draw us higher. To understand poems, we must reflect on them: and I find that the process of memorization and repetition, as I walk or work, is very fruitful for such contemplation. For example, George Herbert’s “Love (III)” is written in comparatively simple language, but it is deep—very deep. And as I have memorized and recited and (almost accidentally) reflected on it, I have come to understand it a little more deeply and appreciate the subtle wondrousness of Herbert’s poem. One such thing I have noticed is how, each time the soul draws back, Love comes nearer:
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,George Herbert, “Love (III)”
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
How do you persevere while walking up a long hill in the sun with a pack on your back? I recite The Ballad of the White Horse. And I find that when in the little spiritual or physical discomfort which I experience, great poetry can often help, both by distracting the mind and by putting my tribulations into proportion; Henry V’s Agincourt speech strengthened me to go through a flight and a strange airport alone for the first time.
This story shall the good man teach his son;William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act V, Scene III
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…
Go forth and memorize.