Memorizing Literature

Did you ever have to memorize literature for English class?

I did.

My luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My luve is like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I
And I shall love thee still, my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my luve
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun
I shall luve thee still, my dear
While the sands o’ life shall run

And fair thee weel, my bonnie luve,
And fair thee weel a while
And I shall come again, my luve
Though it were ten thousand mile.

If you check out Bartleby, which I did after typing this from memory, you will see I don’t have it 100 percent, but I learned it in 1990 — 18 years ago now — in my 12th grade British literature class.

I know it’s considered pass√©, but I do ask my students to memorize literature. When I initially make the assignment, the reactions are all pretty much along the lines of What’s the point of doing this? This is crazy! This is impossible! I can’t do it… no, you don’t understand, I really can’t do it.

After my students figure out I mean it, they buckle down and start memorizing. My students who read Macbeth last semester memorized “Out, out, brief candle.” My students reading Romeo and Juliet are in the midst of memorizing (some recited today, and others will tomorrow) Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, and my students studying Hamlet are memorizing “To be or not to be.”

Once they realized it wasn’t going away, I really admired the way my 9th grade students reading R&J attacked the text. They made sure to tell me what they thought of Mercutio’s delivery of their lines when we discussed the play yesterday. One of my favorite moments in the play was when Mercutio paused dramatically on the line “And in this state she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of…” One of my students impulsively called out “love!” The good-humored actor playing Mercutio pointed and nodded at my student and agreed, “Love!”

Years ago when I last taught A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I asked my students to memorize Titania’s “Set your heart at rest.” The next semester, one of my students showed me the speech, written decoratively and inserted in the cover of her binder. She was really proud of having memorized it, and that speech displayed on her binder was her way of saying she owned that piece of literature.

Ultimately, that’s what memorization does. It’s a gift of ownership over literature. It’s being able to say that poem, that speech, that monologue, that soliloquy is mine. I have read and taught Romeo and Juliet so many times that I have many of the lines memorized, and it makes me happy to be able to recite. Please understand I don’t mean that as a boast. I mean that reciting literature, rolling those words around without having to look them up, makes me feel power over them. It makes me love them and understand them. It makes me feel like a part of the literature as much as the literature is a part of me.

And maybe I’m old fashioned (and that’s OK), but that’s a gift I want to give my students. I’m not naive enough to think all of them accept this gift and keep it, the way I did with the literature I have been required to or have chosen to memorize, but if even one student can say in 18 years “That Queen Mab speech? Yeah, I own that,” then I’ll be satisfied. Of course, I hope more than one student will say that.

That Robert Burns poem? Yeah, I own that.

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6 thoughts on “Memorizing Literature

  1. I think that memorization exercises are an excellent inclusion into any English class. I don't know what your curriculum expectations are, but I find that memorizing literature can greatly assist in helping students to meet the Ontario curriculum for the oral communication strand. I hope that your students continue to enjoy and 'own' great literature.

  2. Of course, I agree with you, Mr. W., or I wouldn't have the requirement. How interesting it was to hear our locker area ringing with students practicing Shakespeare this morning instead of, well, the other sorts of language you hear around lockers. At any rate, I have noticed memorization doesn't seem to be much practiced nowadays, and I think it's a shame. Just this morning, one of my students came in to tell me how much she struggled to learn the speech, but also how proud she felt that she had done it. Her mom was really impressed when she recited it at home last night.

  3. You've got me thinking, Dana…. I had to memorize Chaucer and a couple of Shakespeare's soliloquys in college, and it delight the kids when I start, "What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East…" and they realize they recognize what I'm reciting.

  4. Something you said in your reply to Mr. W struck me: "memorization doesn’t seem to be much practiced nowadays". As is said of athletes, unused muscles atrophy.

    The human mind was once capable of memorizing mammoth epic poems. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond suggests that humans can't memorize as much as we used to because our memory has atrophied. Turns out, the invention of writing offloaded our need to memorize which in turn has made us less able to memorize stuff.

    I'm talking many, many generations' worth of change…not since we were teens. That said, I can still quote the opening of Poe's "The Raven". :)

  5. Unfortunately, I have no memory for what I've memorized in the past. I even memorized passages in Spanish for a state competition-totally gone. While this might be enriching for some or most?, don't forget your students like me… and I'm currently an English teacher myself

  6. Jennifer…but isn't that the point of good teaching? You try to reach as many different learners in as many ways as possible? If memorization didn't work for you…surely other approaches did. Nonetheless, if it worked for some, it is necessary to include.

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