Poetry by Heart

The only time that I’ve been encouraged to memorize poetry was for an individual verse speaking competition at secondary school. I learnt short poems like William Blake’s ‘Poison Tree‘ and Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ by heart, and found it more enjoyable than daunting. I’ve not thought much about memorizing poetry since, except that it feels a very traditional way to study poetry: I was learning poems as an extra-curricular activity, not in an English lesson.

Recently I’ve come to realize that it’s an extremely valuable activity if practiced properly. I don’t much care to become a walking minstrel, or to use it to improve mental agility, or to chuck away my mp3 player or the smartphone I don’t own because I have the music of poetry running round my head. I’m not interested in it for the same reason that the author of this essay called ‘Got Poetry?‘ is. No, memorizing poetry fascinates me because it forces you to meet a poem on its own terms: to hear it well, read it several times, understand its structure, internalize its rhythms, and empathize with the speaker.

I’ve occasionally said, somewhat flippantly, that my Cambridge English degree taught me everything apart from how to read at the right speed. I can spend an hour poring over a single poem, and I can leaf through whole books to extract just the quotation I think I want. But it’s only by pausing to absorb poems that a poem begins to radiate before me, and this sensitivity is trained by having it echo in my skull. Memorization helps me produce those conditions, even if I don’t spend long enough with it to be able to recite it a few days later.

This old technique is also teaching me how poetry is written. Great poets have usually read, studied and imitated previous great poets. By insisting on originality and resisting disciplined study of poetry’s music, I believe—and my conservatism surprises me—we miss out on how humans developed advanced language skills. We learn language through imitating our parents, and perhaps we learn poetry through imitating our literary forebears.

Memory is particularly associated with poetry, rather than any other form of writing. Its repetitions and subtle connections make it easier to memorize. Indeed, one theory goes that poetry originated as mnemonic writing: its patterns helped people to remember lists, stories, religious doctrine and other information. Research has shown that music and memory are associated.

You gain something by learning one poem that you don’t by casting eyes over six poems by the same poet. The memory arts activate something in the mind. Memorization may seem daunting or simply antiquated given modern-day technological advances, but even in small amounts I find it cultivates and strengthens my mental circuitry. Poets.org suggests some starting points if you feel inspired to memorize a poem.

Rickety Dichotomies

The Radio 4 programme In Our Time discussed the philosophical continental-analytical split this week. The speakers all offered massive disclaimers at the start: there is no clear-cut distinction, continental philosophy isn’t a coherent body of thought, the geographical distinction is nonsense, and no philosopher’s work can be reduced to one of two camps. When I’m asked about different approaches to studying English or what the differences between English departments at Oxford and Cambridge are, my explanation sometimes uses the same terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytical’ in passing, and with similar caution.

I endorse the same disclaimers, since I believe that each person holds an inter-locking set of beliefs and unspoken assumptions that can’t be guessed by assigning them to a particular creed or label. I believe that you don’t begin to know people until you’ve encountered them, in person or through what they’ve produced. Still, I find it instructive to think generally about larger differences in approach to difficult questions, so here’s my take on how the continental-analytical divide, as explained through the following garbled summary, could be applied to literary study. In particular, I’ll use it to answer another question I’m sometimes asked: hasn’t most of what’s been written about Shakespeare just been made up by critics?

Breezy summaries first. Analytical philosophy (Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein are among its notable proponents) seeks to establish what it is that we can know through reason and logic. It pursues objective analysis to cut through all that is unproven to locate irrefutable propositions about reality that must be true. It’s unified by a method that emphasizes precision and thoroughness, and has tended to dwell on the philosophy of language: how well does language describe the world? It currently prevails in academic philosophy today, the programme told us.

Beatrice Han-Pile’s excellent introduction to continental philosophy emphasized that its concerns are existential, arising from humans having a limited understanding of the world and being aware of this. Consequently, this provokes questions unique to humans, such as ‘how do I lead a good life?’, ‘what is beauty?’ or ‘do I have I soul?’ Answers to these questions cannot be established through reason alone, but require us to draw on subjective experiences and feelings to be able to answer them. These questions demand us to confront how we can come to understanding of the world as humans, through perception (phenomenology worries about this) or interpretation (hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation). It seeks to understand how we interact with the world as whole beings, and often speaks readily to political and social concerns.

Now—and here I start to add even more planks to this rickety rope-bridge—English studies had two different origins that could be perceived as corresponding approximately (and anachronistically) from this divide. English studies, as I understand it, began in nineteenth-century London. University College (UCL) initially promoted a more utilitarian approach to English language and literature (think Jeremy Bentham), emphasising composition skills, and the factual and historical study of language. King’s College, meanwhile, was more evangelical and taught sound moral principles based on the classics: it saw religion and education as intertwined. The University of Oxford established English as a professional discipline nudged, as I’ve been told, by a renewed need to train colonial civil servants (need to check this): it promoted philology (i.e. history of language) and historical studies of literature. In twentieth-century Cambridge a different type of degree course was set up, one more socially aware and which combined ‘life, literature and thought’. In particular, ‘Practical criticism’ was a skill of close reading conceived by I. A. Richards to have psychological benefits for students, and is still associated with Cambridge though most degree courses in Britain teach close reading. Just one more creaky paragraph to come….

As literature departments developed in the UK, then, one side tends to regard English language and literature as a discipline that can inform us about history, about language, and other objective matters. This is the more analytical approach, and is closer to what I’ve encountered during my time at Oxford (disclaimer with alarm-bells etc.). The other side takes literature as a social phenomenon that presents ideal ground from which to consider how humans describe, interpret and communicate about the world around them through language. This approach is more continental, and more attuned to work I saw and worked on in Cambridge. Both sides—and it’s wearying for me to keep on with these withdrawals, but we’re almost there—have great strengths, and I doubt either exists in a pure form: they can combine and correct each other. It happens that the more analytical approach is also more dominant, I would say, in continental European, British and American literature departments right now, and if so this is probably connected, among other things, to increased specialization as we accumulate more knowledge.

So in answer to the question whether critics are just making it up about Shakespeare, there are two answers. One: no, because academic Shakespeare studies establish what we can know about his dramas and poems using primary sources and analysis. Academics provide the context and historical basis to help others read and enjoy his works. Two: no, because from our contemporary perspective we can ask important questions that aren’t less important because Shakespeare wouldn’t have asked them, such as how he represented women or colonies, or held broad views about humanity. Academics open up these questions for others to pursue. Regardless of approach, very few critics would dare to explain exactly what Shakespeare was trying to tell us in his plays, that don’t just echoes through history.

If we want to run away with this split further we could start speculating a basic neurological foundation for all this, the much-skewered left- and right-brain distinction (Jonathan Sacks criticized here for this; Iain McGilchrist here, for example). And just to tip the tension into ridicule, we could imagine a humanistic theory of everything which also include thought/ feeling and science/ religion. The sheer adaptability of this same continental-analytical split into virtually every sphere of human endeavour makes me think that it is worthwhile as a tool for thinking (because it keeps on recurring), if not for describing reality.

More importantly, it reminds me once again that no individual mind or artifact can be slotted in one of two categories. In fact, such gross simplification goes against the basic nature of humanistic study as I and others pursue it. We learn this once we start analysing a text in all its historical complexity, and as we start posing theoretical questions. In fact, English studies ought to be superb at such self-scrutiny because language, the medium through which all these ideas are communicated, is its basic subject of study. It ought to be the first to resist the shackles of such dichotomies, even though individuals will naturally incline towards approaches similar to those previously adopted by others.

Medieval Illuminations

My first piece of advice for anyone thinking of studying English literature at university is to remember that the literary canon doesn’t begin with Jane Austen (1775-1817). I read some Andrew Marvell (1621-78), some John Donne (1572-1631), William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596) and his King Lear (1605) at A-Level, but medieval literature was still largely unknown to me, aside from a not particularly fruitful read-through of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (c. 1390) from the local library. I’m still far from knowledgeable about the whole millennium brought under the single term ‘Middle Ages’ (c.400-1500), but the formative event that kindled my interest was the outstanding exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum held during my first term at Cambridge, The Cambridge Illuminations (virtual exhibition still available online).

Another major exhibition of illuminated manuscripts (i.e., handwritten books with decorative images) has just opened at the British Library. It’s called Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and is sumptuous. The display provides a vivid, broad introduction to English elite culture between the ninth and sixteenth centuries through some of the most remarkable books that survive. It’s divided into sections that show royal influence impinging on the creation of these manuscripts: this is a period in which books are a valuable commodity, commissioned and owned by the wealthy. The opening exhibits from Edward IV’s royal library, for example, show royal crests scattered around the page-borders, alongside the fruit, animals and fantastic creatures drawn by the illuminator. The exhibition surveys Christian texts, expressions of royal identity (e.g. genealogical trees), books of instruction and reference, and items with strong links to continental culture.

These manuscripts, all at least 500 years old, are remarkably well-preserved, and it’s valuable to appreciate each illumination in context, on the page and within a book that’s been bound and presented for a particular purpose. The lighting is sometimes too dim and the visitor numbers too great to be able to pause and scrutinize each page, but it’s still very possible to absorb the meticulous detail that went into each illumination. There are many highlights (try browsing those on this page, or purchase the app), but for one example, take the image of God the Creator that’s been used to publicize the exhibition: you can see it from a bus passing the museum, or find it in the shop adorning commemorative tote bags, pin badges, fridge magnets and coffee mugs. It’s only when I left nose-breath marks on the exhibition case, however, that I noticed how the image’s details resonated and expanded with the meaning in the text: angels fill the lapis lazuli sky and the vermilion mandorla (almond-shaped panel), and God’s feet don’t quite touch the earth. Theological and artistic precision are combined.

I didn’t need the audio guide to remind me how much more there is to absorb in each of the 150 manuscripts on display than I could take in during one visit. The exhibition shows a modern library fulfilling its duty to educate the general public by bringing its most valuable material out from the store and into a gallery. The manuscripts are a key treasure in our cultural heritage that open up a vista of intellectual endeavour and royal aspiration from the past.  It also shows the indissoluble relation between literature, theology, history, scholarly learning and artistic achievement in the period. The exhibition is open until 13 March 2012, and the permanent Treasures exhibition and the small display of Michael Katakis‘s photographs are also worth looking out if you visit.