• carol middleton

Learning by Heart

If you think back to your schooldays, do you remember learning poems or passages from books by heart? If so, was this a chore inflicted on you by teachers and soon forgotten, or were those words cherished and etched into your memory? Can you still recall them?

I expect it was poetry you learned by heart. Yeats, maybe? For me it was Rupert Brooke, and Shakespeare. Formal poetry, with its regular structure and repetition, rhythm and rhyme, has the greatest power to hook into our memory. Those short rhyming lines date back to days before the printing press, when stories were remembered and passed down the generations.

The expression ‘learning by heart’ implies that committing something to memory is a gratifying experience. I have just come across the phrase in one of those little Penguin 60s Classics volumes, spoken by Socrates to his friend Phaedrus. Apparently the Greeks invented the phrase, which reflects their belief that the heart is the seat of intelligence and memory as well as emotion.

We are more likely to have an emotional response to a passage of writing if we learn it ‘by heart’. Even reading it aloud helps, like a stepping-stone to learning it by heart. The physical action of reading aloud – taking a breath, quickening the heart - triggers feelings.

What changes happen when we learn a poem or a passage by heart? We form a bond with the literature. It offers us inspiration, comfort, companionship. It becomes part of who we are.

Now you are an adult, do you copy down favourite sentences or paragraphs from books you are reading, words that have some special significance for you, or inspire you in your writing or your daily life? Have you tried learning these pieces by heart?

For those of us who have become used to absorbing huge amounts of written information, particularly on a screen, much of what we read is instantly forgotten. You will never remember a passage that you have only skimmed, or even read in an anxious state, rushing to get to the end. You will need to slow down to a pace where you absorb the words, respond with your heart and thoughts and experience. If it seems worth remembering, record it in writing or, better still, learn it by heart. It will be locked away in your memory forever, a precious friend you can call on at any time.

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