‘I summon up remembrance of things past’: responses to memorising poetry   

By Meg Dyson, Metre and Memorisation

‘Metre and Memorisation’, a Brigstow institute project and a collaboration between English and Psychology academics, investigates how we learn poetry off by heart, and how it feels when we do. Along with psychology graduate Rebecca Jackson, I led a series of Zoom sessions last summer in which we asked participants to memorise a Shakespeare sonnet using four different memorisation conditions: silent reading, oral rehearsal, imagery, and movement. Then we looked for two bits of information: how accurately they could recite the poem from memory immediately afterwards; and, more informally, what the experience had felt like for our participants. Did they enjoy memorising the sonnets? What did the poetry make them feel? Did they learn anything about Shakespeare, or memory, or about the subjects of the sonnets – love, death, time?

We gathered this information from discussion groups and surveys held after the sessions. Certain themes came through across our 85 participants: lots of people found that the experience of memorising new poems made them remember poems (or lines or individual words of poetry) that they had learnt earlier in life. One participant remembered learning a poem as a young child at school, reciting while moving around ‘as if I was hypnotising myself’. Another could still remember the first verse of ‘The Lady of Shallot’, which they had memorised at age 12. The act of learning a poem off by heart provided a link, or continuity, with other poems and with other acts of memorisation. One participant recalled a very ill family member, near the end of their life, reciting a poem they had learnt at school. Poetry was ‘the last thing to go’, the participant explained – the last words that memory could hold onto.

Sonnet 123, one of the ones we asked our participants to memorise, explicitly concerns continuity and change through the passage of time. It begins ‘No, time, thou shalt not boast that I do change’, and ends: ‘I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee’. One of our participants said that they found this one easier to memorise, ‘maybe because I’m getting old, so I can relate to wanting to tell time to **** off!’. The feeling of relating to certain messages or themes in the sonnets was a common response among our participants. Sonnet 98 begins: ‘From you have I been absent in the spring’, and describes how even the ‘lily’s white’ and the ‘deep vermilion in the rose’ seemed pale, insignificant, with ‘you away’.  In June of 2021, a long spring of absence seemed particularly relatable to many of us. One participant commented: ‘The trees are beautiful, but in lockdown or isolation we can’t see them properly. Do they lose their meaning, or do they gain meaning when we’re absent from them? Do they make me feel more or less when I can’t see them?’

We discussed the repetitiveness of the sonnets, and how the similarities between them made memorisation harder: some participants found themselves combining two sonnets about love in their memory. Dr John Lee, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Bristol who joined some of our discussions about the project, said that one explanation for repetition in and across the sonnets is that ‘part of the defining quality of love is its repetitive nature – love constantly finds new ways of expressing the same thing.’ This posed a challenge for some of our participants, but others found repetition helpful, especially in the ‘oral’ condition, in which we asked participants to memorise a sonnet by speaking it out loud. Sonnet 104 addresses love across time, and includes the repetition of a particular sound:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eyed,

Such seems your beauty still.

The phrase ‘your eye I eyed’ – which, as John Lee pointed out to us, might be read as a pun on ‘aye aye aye’ – was ‘irritating’ to memorise during the experiment, according to one participant. But the assonance of this line also meant that it stayed in their memory for a long time; this discussion took place a couple of weeks after the session in which they had been asked to memorise sonnet 104.

For almost all of our participants, certain memorisation conditions felt harder than others. Lots found the ‘imagery’ condition difficult: we asked participants to picture a ‘story board’ of the sonnet, and memorise according to those images. A common response in our discussions was that this felt counter-intuitive because they instinctively wanted to perform the poems orally – it was ‘a joy to say the poems out loud’ in the oral condition, said one person. Another wanted to ‘gesticulate and point’; the physical connection to poetry was a common response, with one participant explaining that in the ‘movement’ condition they tried to ‘physically embody a piece of text or a thought’.

The primary focus of the ‘Metre and Memorisation’ experiment is investigating which of these four conditions represents the most effective method of memorising poetry. The discussions and responses from our participants suggest that across these conditions, people feel a personal, sometimes physical connection to poetry when memorising and reciting it. For many of our participants, then, learning these Shakespeare sonnets off by heart facilitated a feeling of connection: with their bodies, with their younger selves, with lost loved ones, and with the world around them, especially in a year in which so many of us had been ‘absent’ from each-other.