Learning by heart
Once I took a literature course in which we were required, two or three times during the course of the semester, to learn a poem by heart and read it in class without a manuscript. This was while I took an exchange semester in the U.S., at the University of Connecticut. The course was an introduction to 20th century American poetry, and i think it must have been one of the most stimulating courses I’ve had during my years of studying literature. Our teacher was a young woman who obviously lived and breathed poetry, herself a poet and if I remember correctly a so-called graduate fellow at the University, which I’m still not sure what is. I only remember that she was completing what was probably a ph.d. thesis while teaching at least two courses at the same time – which, when you’re in America, means 4-6 classes a week, and for each of them all students usually hand in written assignments which you’re supposed to grade and maybe give feedback on. Each class has 15-20 students. I remember being very impressed that anyone could manage to concentrate on a thesis while correcting or reviewing an average of a 100 assignments a week, as well as preparing classes.
The exercise, in any case, was extremely useful. I remember walking around in the woods outside the campus area, trying to memorize “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. I can’t remember all of it today, it turned out to be a bit too long for that, but the chanting quality of it emerges like a familiar shadow when I hear her name mentioned, and a few lines pop up every now and then in the back of my head: You do not do, you do not do, any more, black shoe, in which I’ve lived like a foot for thirty years…
The next time the time came to pick a poem, I chose something slightly more managable, a short lyric poem composed by someone who was quickly becoming one of my favourites: W. H. Auden, with whom I at that point was yet only superficially, but pleasurably, acquainted with. The poem was called “On This Island” and had a subtly exquisite sound pattern; the lines followed no strict pattern I was familiar with, yet had an unmistakable rhythm and form to them, they seemed to adapt to the pace of my breath as I spoke; they expressed a sentiment imbued with longing, but for something not quite identifiable; an unnamable mixture of peace and restlessness, loneliness and contentedness; focused, like so many – as I later learned or noticed – poems Auden wrote in the 30s before his emigration to the U.S., on the horizon shimmering over the sea. Let me see if I still remember it all:
Look, stranger, on this island now,
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here,
And silent be,
As through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river,
The swaying sound of the sea.
Far off, like floating seeds, the ships
[Emerge?] on urgent, voluntary errands,
And this still view,
Indeed may enter,
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror,
And all summer through the water saunter.
These are the first and third verses. The second I had forgotten, and had to look up the first line, which brought on the rest:
Here, at this small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide.
Where the shingle scrambles after the suck-
ing surf and a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
(When you arrive at the line ending with “suck-“, it is clear that the poem does follow a formal scheme of some sort. At a closer look you first spot the full rhymes – ear/hear, pluck/suck, view/do – then the half rhymes – discovers/river, ledges/lodges, errands/mirror. Add the alliterations, assonances and consonances – leaping –light – delight – silent or Small – chalk – wall – falls – tall… And so on.)
Upon reading, I realise that my description before was “wrong”; I didn’t use to associate this poem with longing and restlessness. It used to fill me with a sense of reverence, a sense of silence and elevated calm similar to that evoked by Goethe’s über allen Gipfeln ist ruh… That sense of a small pause in perception, where some kind of veil is lifted and you suddenly see something else in everything around you. Why then, did I now – and it’s been ages since I read it last – associate the poem with “loneliness and contentedness”? Perhaps I was describing myself. (When in doubt, always assume you’ve been talking about yourself!) When I discovered this poem I was, after all, in a sort of “voluntary exile,” I was isolating myself and spending a lot of time alone. I came to the U.S. with the express purpose of studying, reading and writing, not too much socializing, not too much fun – the memory of another exchange semester, in Berlin, fresh in mind – and found my determination somewhat involuntarily reinforced by a larger than expected cultural difference. I think the poetry and other literature I immersed myself in that semester left me with a stronger impression for that reason. Loneliness, but one I had asked for.
Auden often wrote favourably about teaching pupils and students of literature to memorize poetry. “If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart.” In July 1943 he wrote a memorandum for a Harvard committee dealing with the reform of English studies, which he thought should be divided into the study of A) Literature as an Art (“not Religion, Science, Politics, etc.”, B) Literature as an art (dealing with language, “not sound, colour, stone, etc.”), and C) The history of literature. Elaborating on point B, again, he emphasizes: “There should be a lot of learning by heart, and a lot of translation into English from foreign languages.”
Myself, I think the language in the English expression for memorizing something is rather romantic: Whereas we in Norwegian use the rather prosaic expression “without-that-” (roughly translated, and one has to add whatever one is doing without, of course, such as a manuscript), the English-speaking world calls it learning by heart. That’s idealism for you, isn’t it?
Note 1: My by-heart-transcription of “On This Island” is not a 100% correct. You should look it up.
Note 2: My wonderful poetry teacher was called Jennifer L. Holley, and you can look at one of her prose poems here.