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Learning by heart

posted by Hannah on Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Do you remember having to learn by heart in school? Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Maya Angelou to name but a few. Perhaps you hated it, or maybe you have never forgotten your favourite poems.

According to Salman Rushdie, learning in this way can be very beneficial. The novelist, speaking at the recent Hay Festival, described memorising poems as a “lost art” that “enriches your relationship with language.” Therefore, he has called for this form of teaching to be brought back into schools.

David Whitley, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University, who is currently carrying out research into poetry and memory, has also argued the benefits of learning poetry by heart. Whitley explained that the benefit of memorising poems and other pieces of text is that people end up having a more personal relationship with the language. They connect it with current life events, including people and relationships around them, which helps reinforce the learning.

Learning poetry within education was mandatory up until and during the First World War but started to wane in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. Whitley explained that teachers now tend to avoid teaching poetry in this way due to the fact that it may then become standardised.

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry agrees with both Rushdie and Whitley. Perry has stated that the memorising of anything, including music and poetry, means that people always have something to recite in their head. She has argued that memorising poems can be good for the health of the brain, stating: “The way we ‘grow’ our brains is that we make connections between our brain cells; neural pathways. The more you exercise that network, the more you strengthen it. If you learn things by heart, you get better at it.”

Therefore, it may be a good time to start learning by rote again or very least, memorising your favourite radio tunes!

For old times sake here is my favourite childhood poem:


by Rudyard Kipling

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!