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Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

By Catherine Robson

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 Beats is 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 Beats begins 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 Beats is an important study of the history and power of memorized poetry.
"Heart Beats is a work of passionate intelligence—sensitive to issues of class and to the place of recitation in the disciplining of minds and bodies, but at the same time open to the idea that verse memorization can liberate and shape social practices for the better." —John O. Jordan, University of California, Santa Cruz
"Robson's history of memorized poetry is impressive in every way: imaginatively conceived and massively researched, it holds important implications for the way we teach and read." —Leah Price, Harvard University
"This innovative book gives an institutional history of memorizing poetry in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century schools, and provides an account of the psychological effects of this practice in the lives of students who memorized. A key scholarly book in the field, this book is a winner." —Linda Peterson, Yale University
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