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Heart Beats

Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

Catherine Robson
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Heart Beats
    Book Description:

    Many people in Great Britain and the United States can recall elderly relatives who remembered long stretches of verse learned at school decades earlier, yet most of us were never required to recite in class.Heart Beatsis the first book to examine how poetry recitation came to assume a central place in past curricular programs, and to investigate when and why the once-mandatory exercise declined. Telling the story of a lost pedagogical practice and its wide-ranging effects on two sides of the Atlantic, Catherine Robson explores how recitation altered the ordinary people who committed poems to heart, and changed the worlds in which they lived.

    Heart Beatsbegins by investigating recitation's progress within British and American public educational systems over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and weighs the factors that influenced which poems were most frequently assigned. Robson then scrutinizes the recitational fortunes of three short works that were once classroom classics: Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca," Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna." To conclude, the book considers W. E. Henley's "Invictus" and Rudyard Kipling's "If--," asking why the idea of the memorized poem arouses such different responses in the United States and Great Britain today.

    Focusing on vital connections between poems, individuals, and their communities,Heart Beatsis an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4515-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-32)

    The core of this book addresses the intersection between everyday life and a mere two hundred lines of poetry: Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca” (1826), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), and Charles Wolfe’s “Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna” (1817). All three works, widely read in schools and continuously reprinted in anthologies, were memorized and recited, whether willingly or unwillingly, in whole or in part, by significant proportions of the population in English-speaking countries for substantial stretches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In consequence, these verses carried the potential to touch and alter the worlds of...

  6. PART I The Memorized Poem in British and American Public Education
    (pp. 33-90)

    It is a Friday afternoon, some time in 1910. Elsie Hernsbusher, the blacksmith’s daughter, puts down her book and walks to the recitation bench. Both of Elsie’s grandfathers were born in Germany, but she and her parents are all natives of the United States, and the family speaks English at home. Now, in front of her schoolmates in the small town of Darien, Wisconsin (pop. 1,249), the twelve-year-old girl prepares to break the silence. On another afternoon in the same year, nearly four thousand miles away in Yorkshire, a boy named Charles William Bond is also on the brink of...

  7. Part II Case Studies

    • Felicia Hemans, “Casabianca”
      (pp. 91-122)

      Of all the many retellings—usually ribald, scurrilous, or just plain silly—of Felicia Hemans’s poem “Casabianca,” Elizabeth Bishop’s response is perhaps the only one that is consciously attentive to the status the work once held as a preeminent choice for memorization and recitation by English-speaking children.² Hemans had based her poem (first published in theMonthly Magazinein 1826) on accounts of the death of a young Corsican sailor in 1798, informing her readers in an explanatory note that “Young Casabianca, a boy about thirteen years old, son to the Admiral of the Orient, remained at his post (in...

    • Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
      (pp. 123-190)

      Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by requests for information about his formative years. According to his onetime law partner William H. Herndon, Lincoln was unwilling to make himself the subject of any extended study and “deprecated the idea of writing even a campaign biography” (2). In response to a plea from a journalist on theChicago Tribune, the presidential candidate is said to have expressed himself in the following manner:

      Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of me or my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence,...

    • Charles Wolfe, “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna”
      (pp. 191-218)

      Not so long ago, I discovered that my first acquaintance with the poem that forms the focus of this chapter had been forged at an early age.² As a nine-year-old, I was wholly addicted to a now-neglected classic of schoolboy humor, a book that featured the caustic observations and idiosyncratic spelling of Nigel Molesworth, a dyspeptic pupil at St. Custard’s, the minor preparatory school of a minor public school. The dog-eared Puffin reprint that I had stolen from my older brother, and that I returned to again and again over the next few years, was entitledHow To Be Topp;³...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 219-234)

    In December 2009 a film calledInvictusopened in American cinemas; its London premiere occurred a month later. The movie tells the story of how Nelson Mandela, in his first term as the South African president, strove to unite his apartheid-torn country by enlisting the help of the national rugby team; the team’s victory in the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup provides the film with its uplifting conclusion. Although Mandela’s autobiography actually makes no mention of his reciting W. E. Henley’s poem in prison, and although the text he handed to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar for inspiration was...

  9. Appendixes
    (pp. 235-242)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 243-272)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 273-288)
  12. Index
    (pp. 289-296)