Learning by Heart
Some of you know that I’ve been escaping into the Cotswold village of Fairacre periodically for nearly twenty years. I like reading about the British-schoolmistress-days of Miss Read during the 1950s. Ambling along a page in Changes in Fairacre I took note of her opinion and smiled.
“After a short session of modeling [in clay] I embarked on two short poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. I am a great believer in stuffing young children’s heads with worthwhile verse which they will have safely stored away for the rest of their lives.”
One of the lovely things about home education is the picking up of interesting ideas, beautiful thoughts, and sentiments that a teacher commits to memory while she is leading her children to do so. I followed Miss Charlotte Mason’s advice in Home Education in 1989 and chose some verses for memory work. Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses appealed to me and I thought they would appeal to my little girls, too. But it wasn’t work, really. I read a poem aloud one morning. Later, while I was preparing supper I read it again. And again when the baby was in his crib for the night and my little girls were in the bath. It only took a couple of minutes. It met their ears like a commercial jingle on the radio might, mingling into the atmosphere of the house.
The next morning, between penmanship and arithmetic, I spoke the first four lines of the poem. I didn’t need to read it. Apparently, I had learned it by heart myself – effortlessly. I repeated it again at supper and again at bedtime. On the third day I recited it, then asked my girls to take turns reciting it. This they did with no trouble.
“Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession. . .” C.M.
"It is possible that the disengaged mind of the child is free to take [in] . . . beautiful images clothed in beautiful words. . . . Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorizing . . . attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. At the same time, when there is so much noble poetry within a child’s compass, [it is] a pity that she should be allowed to learn twaddle.” C.M.
Following this plan we learned the twelve lines of the poem, “The Swing” by heart.
Years later when I was sitting together with my son on the sofa (the baby reached age 6) reading “The Swing” out of our picture book, it dawned on me that the lines could have been written as if following the path of a long rope swing - one line of the poem swinging forward – the next line swinging backward, in rhythmic pendulum fashion. We were renting a house in Oregon that had a tall sturdy oak tree at the edge of the lawn. A rope swing was attached to a branch that was high off the ground. I don’t know how the previous residents (a retired couple) managed to attach the rope to such a high branch. It made a wonderfully long ride. The rider thrillingly soured through the air (almost dangerously so) with the breeze in her hair, once she “got into the swing of it.”
I’ll probably always be fond of the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. More than twenty years later, with only a little prodding, I can still recall most of the verses we learned by heart. I savor their simple expression of joy – and made them a part of my Mother Culture. If it were not for home education I wonder if I would ever have had such a “child’s garden of verses” in my soul – if I hadn’t embarked upon “stuffing the heads” of my young children with “worthwhile verse,” as Miss Read puts it.
“It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages,” says Charlotte Mason. Of the Bible we read that in place of the “memory verse” we are advised to learn a longer piece to absorb the surrounding context.
If anyone asks, “What shall I learn?" the answer is, “Begin with what you sincerely like best, what you would most wish to remember." This time of year it could be the Christmas story in Scripture written by the apostle, physician and historian, St Luke – so treasured by many and most familiar to us in the King James - as spoken impromptu by Linus in the old TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” (Luke 2:8-14)
In summer I took a series of breakfast times to refresh my memory and secure the Twenty-Third Psalm word-perfect before my scheduled lumbar puncture that the patient is wide-awake for. I anticipated the need for its security. When the day and hour arrived I clung to each line of precious truth like a toddler does a blanket, I can assure you.
On a more serious vein, men have taken verses and literary passages committed to memory with them onto the battlefields of the world wars to recall them while they wait in the muddy trenches.
In the 19th century, Vernon Lushington, stirs his fellow adults onto a plan of self-education.
“Till he has fairy tried it, I suspect the reader does not know how much he would gain from committing to memory passages of real excellence; precisely because he does not know how much he overlooks in merely reading. Learn one true poem by heart, and see if you do not find it so. Beauty after beauty will reveal itself, in chosen phrase, or happy music, or noble suggestion otherwise undreamed of. It is like looking at one of nature’s wonders through a microscope.
Again, how much in such a poem that you really did feel admirable and lovely on a first reading, passes away if you do not give it a further and much better reading. It passes away utterly, like a sweet sound, or an image on the lake, which the first breath of wind dispels. If you could only fix that image, as the photographers do theirs, so beautifully, so perfectly! You can. . . Learn it by heart, and it is yours forever!”
Sharing thoughts across the years and across the miles with you,
toward the "Gentle Art of Learning."
toward the "Gentle Art of Learning."
To hear Linus' impromptu recitation click play button.