The rhythms of the heart

The other day, Fillyjonk, in tribute to her high-school French teacher, kindly treated us to the first poem she’d ever memorized for his class: Victor Hugo’s “Demain, dés l’aube.” I’d never memorized it myself, not having progressed far in French, but I did remember reading it, circa 1967.

And then I wondered: Do students memorize poems anymore? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer seems to be No:

As a college professor of writing and literature, I regularly impose memorization assignments, and I’m struck by how burdensome my students typically find them. Give them a full week to memorize any Shakespeare sonnet (“Hey,” I tell them, “pick a really famous one — Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? — and you’ve already got the first line down”), and a number of them will painfully falter. They’re not used to memorizing much of anything.

And what are they missing?

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. [Catherine] Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

Rhythms. “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” The heart picks up the beat, the eyes turn skyward, and something in the soul, however briefly, is satisfied.

But rhythm alone isn’t enough, or we’d all be memorizing pop tunes. “Demain, dés l’aube” carries an emotional wallop, even if you didn’t know that Hugo wrote it for his daughter Léopoldine, married at eighteen and drowned with her husband in a boating accident on the Seine barely six months later.

(With thanks to Joanne Jacobs.)


  1. McGehee »

    4 February 2013 · 2:03 pm

    Even prose, when memorable, relies on rhythm for much of its impact. Brevity and substance help, but an unrhythmic phrase is a forgettable phrase.

  2. Tatyana »

    4 February 2013 · 2:30 pm

    Beautiful post, Chaz, thank you

  3. fillyjonk »

    4 February 2013 · 3:05 pm

    I am grateful I went to school in an era where there were still teachers who thought memorization was important. It’s been very valuable to me to know a few poems by heart. The value, as far as I can tell, is purely emotional and spiritual, but then again….you can’t buy that kind of lasting impression of carrying a poem around in your head and your heart.

    I didn’t find memorizing poems burdensome; I rather enjoyed it. I wasn’t quite as fond of being called on to get up and recite, but even that was not so bad.

    I also know a remarkably large number of hymns off by heart.

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