In Defense of Rote Learning


Is there a poem you know by heart? I hope so. When I was in seventh grade, I memorized Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” thinking it would come in handy later. Fifty years on, it hasn’t, at least in the way I originally thought it might. But it does amuse me when it comes to mind.

“You by the Indian Ganges’ side would rubies find./ I by the tide of Humber would complain…”

I learned later that there was a ferry on the Humber River, near where Marvell lived, that was always late.

In John Mortimer’s immortal stories about Rumpole of the Bailey, the barrister Horace Rumpole, played brilliantly by Leo McKern,  is often transported by snatches of poetry he committed to memory as a schoolboy while he meets a client with orange hair in the Tasty-Bite across from the courthouse. Rumpole is like a beloved grandparent whose memories are from another age, but who is happily adjusting to the craziness of modern times.

Do kids learn poems by heart nowadays? I’m like Rumpole. I have no idea. I have heard that learning things by rote has gone out of fashion, and now every student gets a trophy for just being themselves. I got a trophy once for reciting “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by William Butler Yeats.

I was also made to memorize Duke Orsino’s speech from Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on;/ Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, /The appetite may sicken, and so die.” And in Carl Tucker’s production of “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot, I played the Third Priest, who got to deliver a delicious bit of vitriol to the knights who had done in the archbishop:

“Go, weak sad men, lost erring souls, homeless in earth or heaven./ Go where the sunset reddens the last grey rock /Of Brittany, or the Gates of Hercules. /Go  seek alliance with the heathen Saracen, ‘To share his filthy rites, and try to snatch /Forgetfulness in his libidinous courts, Oblivion in the fountain by the date tree;

Or sit and bite your nails in Aquitaine. /In the small circle of pain within the skill /You still shall tramp and tread one endless round /Of thought, to justfy your actions to yourselves, /Weaving a fiction which unravels as you weave, /Pacing forever in the hell of make-believe /Which never is belief: this is your fate on earth /And we must think no further of you.”

Things you learn by heart stay with you for life, and you’ll find you can spit them out decades later in their entirety. I’m constantly delighted by snatches of songs I sang as a choirboy and bits of plays I acted in. I worked in a candle factory where one of the stations for the stockhandlers was the baler. Whenever I had that station I would sing “Baal, We Cry to Thee” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Kids should be encouraged to be themselves. I’m all for that. But being yourself is not that easy. We have to learn it from others, especially from artists who have, or should have, artistic freedom. I remember visiting an outdoor sculpture museum in Lithuania with a group of Western journalists, and every one had a story about a sculpture they saw as a child that changed their way of thinking about everything.

I believe the snatches  of plays and poetry that we commit to memory — and the songs we sing as choristers and glee club members — act as guideposts for us our whole lives long. And when we become old duffers like Rumpole, we can savor the irony they bring us as we march boldly into a brave new world.