Image by Sean Gladwell
Artillery Row

The meaning of memorisation

Minds, like libraries, should be well-stocked

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”. During the last week I have heard the first few lines of WB Yeats’ Lake Isle Of Innisfree repeatedly, as my seven-year-old son is attempting to learn it. He is almost word-perfect on the first two quatrains now. I have a fanciful, sentimental hope that it sticks with him for his entire life. When I am long gone its persistence in his memory will be a little trigger to remember his old dad.

Committing poetry to memory was not a feature of my own schooling. From GCSE onwards, we did a fair amount of poetic analysis, learning about metaphor and assonance and alliteration, but the idea of permanently furnishing our minds with the verse was not on the agenda. I have always thought this was a shame. As my mother regularly notes of children, they have minds like sponges. In contrast, by the time I really discovered poetry properly, and started trying to memorise it, I was into my thirties, when getting things by heart — whilst certainly far from impossible — feels a good deal more laborious.

Memorisation is one of those perennial discussion points in educational theory, where passions are high and battle lines are drawn. For the trads, you can’t beat detailed knowledge. Teachers must impart to their charges as much as possible of our great inheritance of science, literature and history. For the progressives, rote-learning smacks of the bad old days: mindless chanting, dull and uncreative classrooms, unquestioned adult authority. 

What if you’re in one of those blessed places with no internet signal?

The best case for memorisation is not pedagogical. Rather, it is about what it means to be fully human, and how we can make ourselves members of a continuing civilisation rather than a load of individual units who happen to briefly be in the same place at the same time. 

It was once taken for granted that an educated person would have a well-stocked mental storehouse of quotations, passages, poems and so on. Nowadays we might be tempted to regard this as mere useless status-signalling, or even a covert way to shore up an arbitrary and exclusive canon. This would be a mistake. At the risk of falling into Arnoldian or Scrutonian cliché, the point is that culture is above all a conversation, spanning time and space, and that to be human is to have some familiarity with that conversation. Someone who has written a play or a poem is telling us what the world looks like to them, what they understand by beauty, joy, triumph, tragedy. Familiarity does not simply mean the ability to look it up in your library, or google it in a few seconds. It’s much more than that. It might mean having passages or quotations come to mind quite unbidden, perhaps first thing in the morning or last thing at night, in that strange no man’s land between sleep and wakefulness. It might mean being able to summon the right words or the right phrases at moments of triumph or disaster. Possibly it might mean just being good at conversation.

This last is an underrated skill in the age of distraction, but it is well worth cultivating. Consider people you have met who are interesting and amusing: quite likely they very often had an apposite quotation or phrase to hand, or were familiar with a novel or a speech that illuminated the subject under discussion. Chances are they knew certain topics in detail — Chinese porcelain, or Arab love poetry, or the development of the novel in South America. 

Ah, well, says modern man, we don’t need to know things now. Almost everyone carries the functional equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with them at all times. If it’s relevant you can bring up Arab love poetry on Wikipedia and swot up in a few minutes. Setting aside the question of Wikipedia’s accuracy and completeness, what if you’re out of power or in one of those blessed places with no internet signal? Even if you do have power or 5G, by resorting to that wonderful, terrible little rectangle in your pocket, you are breaking the spell of the conversation. Good conversation — real conversation — is a kind of mutual magic. PG Wodehouse called it “the feast of reason and the flow of soul”. Between the two of you (or the three or four of you) a tapestry is weaved, from the raw material of your experiences, your eloquence, your knowledge. If people are constantly fact-checking or distracted, that fundamentally changes the nature of the endeavour. 

At its best, conversation is a collective effort of memory

You sometimes hear people marvel at how arguments in the pub were settled in the days before mobile internet. The idea that people could not definitively settle who scored the winning goal in the 1976 FA Cup final, or who was the fifth man on the Moon, seems incomprehensible. There’s an important sense in which getting those details exactly right doesn’t matter. The significance and purpose of a conversation is often separate from its ostensible subject. The meaning of the conversation is the conversation. It exists for itself. It should not be mediated by electronic means. At its best it is a collective effort of memory. 

If you don’t furnish your own mind, someone else will do it for you, probably without your even noticing. Nature abhors a vacuum. If your mind is not full of fragments of poetry, passages from plays and the melodies of the great composers, it will be filled with the half-witted slogans of contemporary politics, the canting jargon of frauds and grifters, and the banal pop music of your youth. 

For many of us, the furnishings will become increasingly threadbare with age. In some cases, they will disappear almost entirely. It seems quite plausible that memorisation might help people cling on to some comfort and consolation as their faculties fail in the twilight of their years. If you talk to relatives or friends of patients with advanced dementia, a common observation is that one of the very few things they could still remember, and from which they seemed to gain some satisfaction and comfort, was the prayers they learned by heart in childhood, or the songs they knew as an adolescent. 

Memoirs by political prisoners, who were denied access to books or religious texts for months or years on end, often note how grateful they were for the things they had committed to memory — maybe even acquired by the dreaded rote learning. Few people reading this are likely to find themselves in such circumstances. Nevertheless, it is far from inconceivable that even in mostly free countries, in years to come it may become harder to access certain writings. How fruitful, then, to be able to recall texts of special importance in the privacy and freedom of our mind, where no censor or scold can interfere with our enjoyment and recollection.

Nor should we ignore the close relationship between memory and attention. By the time my children are adults, being able to pay attention — to a book, to a performance and most importantly to a person — is going to be a kind of superpower. Those who have it will have undeniable advantages in study, in the workplace and in relationships. There is almost nothing that builds and nourishes the habit of attention quite like the discipline of learning by heart.

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