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Why I Memorize Poetry

The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to.

Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”) along with Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”).

Contrary to what must have been our complaints at the time, Miss Ashley didn’t make us jump through these hoops just to torture us. A woman with a very firm moral agenda, she announced her reasons loud and clear and often. I still remember them. There was the value of disciplining one’s mind by the act of committing words to memory. Also, the good effect on our imaginations of having in our empty heads powerful examples of great poetic speech.

I heard those bracing messages about discipline and beauty not only in English but also during the Latin classes I took with Miss Ashley all the way through high school. Memorization required there too! Not just the declensions and conjugations but: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catalina, patientiam nostram?…” and “Arma virumque cano….” (Cicero and Virgil, respectively.)

Of course, just hearing Miss Ashley’s reasons for memorization didn’t mean I fully understood them. And it certainly didn’t mean that they became significant to me in any personal sense. But what I did know was that Miss Ashley not only understood them but also stood by them as important rules of life. Like any other adolescent, I constantly tested the sincerity of the adults around me, especially that of my teachers. Miss Ashley passed that test with straight A’s, and not only because she knew the conjugations cold or could quote long passages of poetry herself. I was awed by her genuine passion for language. As a result, while the lines she’d commanded me to memorize mostly faded away, her reasons for memorizing them did not. I may not have understood those reasons, but I had in a way understood her.

Yet I gave no further thought to memorization until I found myself a few years later in an English course at Amherst College, where another awe-inducing teacher, William Pritchard, urged the class to memorize some of the poems we were studying by W. B. Yeats. I, along with the rest of the class, was confused by this strong suggestion (never an actual assignment). Wasn’t memorization an egregious example of the “rote learning” we were otherwise being taught to scorn and reject? But no: memorization didn’t stifle one’s creative responses to a poem, Pritchard insisted. It actually helped you make the poet’s words your own. That intimacy was necessary if you really wanted to discern and weigh subtleties of tone.

So when I later met with my Classics professor John Moore, I asked him to teach me   enough Italian to recite the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno. I’d already been awed by Professor Moore’s memorized recitations of Homer in Greek. Now, with a little Dante along with some Homer in my ever-so-less empty head, I was beginning to feel the personal benefit of a deeper bond with great poetic language.

Many years went by, though, before that bond became a lifeline.

Yes, I used to assign some memorization in the high school English classes I taught during those decades, and I did a little memorizing of passages from favorite poets from time to time, but nothing focused or consistent.

Then, about ten years ago, my life underwent a radical simplification. I learned one morning after an angiogram that I had advanced heart disease and needed by-pass surgery immediately.

This news was a complete surprise, even an affront. Not only had I “done everything right” (lots of exercise, healthy diet, no smoking), but my doctors had not detected such a possibility after many previous tests. I felt badly used, by them and by the universe.

But there I was—with surgery scheduled for the next day. How was I going to get through this?

The answer came right away. By memorizing great poetry. Like… Dante. I asked my wife Peggy to bring to me my bilingual copy, not of the Inferno—okay for the college student, not helpful to him 50 years later on the eve of possibly fatal or otherwise life-changing surgery—but of the Paradiso. I chose the final Canto and immediately began trying to get the opening words into my head: Virgine madre, figlia de tuo figlio…

By the time I left the hospital nine days later, I had about 50 lines by heart—and had it all maybe a month after. I’ve been memorizing poetry continuously ever since. More Dante. Homer. Shakespeare’s sonnets. Keats. Shelley. Lots more Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Frost…

I mentioned before that the bad news of my need for surgery had simplified my life. Here’s how: it forced me to realize that I had to put aside previous concerns, ambitions, and expectations—and focus on healing of mind and body. Healing of my body, obviously. But healing of my mind as well. I was conscious, as I lay that night in my hospital bed prior to the next morning’s surgery, that unless I made it my main business from now on to keep my thoughts focused on all that was good and beautiful, I could all too easily dissolve in panic and self-pity. And at some point, I remembered something Miss Ashley had said, something that applied just as well to coping with heart surgery as to memorization. Somehow the class conversation had veered off into questions about prayer. “What should we pray for, Miss Ashley?” someone (not me) asked. Maybe the student thought she’d say, “Fame and fortune—and good Latin grades.” I can see her pausing and smiling as she says instead: “For strength, of course.”

For strength it would be, then. Memorization certainly demanded it. Poetic words take a lot of marshalling to find and keep their place in remembered sequences. But rote learning, while necessary, is just the beginning. Words have to work at the level of tone, and for that a grasp of the whole utterance has to emerge. The ear has to hear the voice the words embody, the intellect has to sort out their ambiguities, and the imagination must complete the arc connecting reader and writer, so that the two become one in their intimate sharing of those same words.

The benefit of memorization for close reading is easy to appreciate. But the greater benefit, for me, during my nine days in the hospital (and ever since), was that intimate sharing of words I just spoke of. Dante’s voice in my head and heart put other, lesser voices in their place, and began the post-op healing of the spirit that continues to this day.

Yet much of that healing is due not only to Dante and the other great poets whose words fill my now un-empty head these days. It’s due also to the Virgils who pointed the way: Professors Pritchard and Moore, and especially Miss Ashley: tu se lo mio maestro e’l mio autore. (Inferno, I, 85.)


After getting his PhD in English literature, George Dardess taught close reading to his own students until his retirement. Since then he has been ordained a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and written several books on Muslim-Christian relations.