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The joy of learning poems by heart

Blog | By Gyles Brandreth | Dec 02, 2019

I have been making programmes for BBC Radio 4 for almost half a century. In 1969, as a university student, I gave a talk on Woman’s Hour about women’s rights. Since then I have made hundreds of broadcasts (probably thousands) about all sorts of subjects – some amusing, some serious – but not until now have I been involved in a programme that I believe can fundamentally change people’s lives. That’s a bold claim – but read on, especially if you are a young parent or an older person who suffers occasional ‘senior moments’ and lives in fear of the onset of dementia.

I made the programme with BBC producer Tom Alban and you can listen to it here: It’s simply called ‘Poetry by Heart’ and it was commissioned in the run-up to National Poetry Day (on 4 October) to test my instinct that learning poetry by heart is ‘a good thing’ for one and all. It turns out that it is, of course, but much more fundamentally than you could ever imagine.

My head is full of snatches of poetry – as is yours, I expect. Mine is mostly verse I learned as a child – and if you’re of a similar generation (a post-war baby-boomer) it’s likely to be similar stuff . . . A A Milne (‘They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace …’), Lewis Carroll (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe …’), John Masefield (‘I must go down to the seas again …), Rupert Brooke (‘If I should die, think only this of me …’) – bits and pieces I learned at home or at school, the first few lines of which have stayed with me across nearly seven decades. Rattling around inside my head I’ve got lyrics from Gilbert & Sullivan operas (and lyrics by Noel Coward and Flanders & Swann, too: ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud …’), snatches of Shakespeare, the opening of love poems (by Keats and Christina Rossetti), bits of Edward Lear and John Betjeman – and I’m not alone.

Making this radio programme I met up with a number of my contemporaries and found that we had very similar stocks of stored memories. Michael Rosen (poet and former Children’s Laureate) and I overlapped at university and, fifty years on, found ourselves able to recite, in unison, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ – or at least the beginning of it:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said— “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert . . .”

I began my research for the programme with HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. She has recently taken over from The Queen as Patron of the Royal Society of Literature and is actively involved in a number of charities that promote literacy and the importance of language and reading. She kindly invited me for tea at Clarence House. She’s easy company: chatty, forthcoming, unselfconscious, unpretentious, an enthusiastic reader, with a real passion for poetry. Her taste in poetry isn’t as conventional as I had expected. She knew Ted Hughes and he read some of his poetry to her children. One of her favourite poems is ‘The Christmas Truce’ by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. ‘It moved me to tears,’ she told me.

Was poetry part of her childhood? I asked. ‘Very much so,’ she said. ‘My mother loved poetry. Her favourite was “Racing Royal” by John Masefield.’ It’s a narrative poem that tells the story of a steeplechase, the winning horse and the jockey's relationship with his beloved which is placed in jeopardy by the race – all rather apt, I suggested, given the Duchess’s love of horses and her own royal story. She laughed and agreed. ‘At school I had a Scottish teacher who got me into Burns. “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart’s not here …” And a wonderful teacher who read to us from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.’ Her favourites from her schooldays include Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare, John Betjeman (of course), but not Byron. ‘I never got to grips to “Child Harolde”.’ Me neither. ‘But I love the poetry of Oscar Wilde. I still read Wilde.’ (She has a curious connection with Oscar Wilde: her great-great-grandfather, Alec Shand, was secretly engaged to Constance Lloyd who went on to marry Oscar Wilde.) The poems that have stayed with the Duchess over the years are ‘the poems with rhyme and rhythm’. Leaning forward towards the microphone, brow slightly furrowed, she launched into W H Auden’s ‘Night Mail’:

This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order, Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door …

Can she remember the first poem she learned as a girl? ‘Oh yes, definitely, “Matilda”’ – one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales designed ‘for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen’. ‘”Matilda told such Dreadful Lies, It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes” . . . I think I was made to learn it because of some fib I’d told. I can still remember most of it.’

I put the Duchess to the test and – as you’ll hear on the radio programme – she managed a good few lines, without resorting to the copy of Belloc she’d brought with her. ‘It’s not so easy when you’re under pressure. I knew it all last night. It’s much easier for you because you’re an actor.’

Only now and then – but I do know someone who is indisputably the real thing, so leaving the Duchess (more of whom later) I went on to see Dame Judi Dench. I found her in her country garden, enjoying the late summer sunshine, sitting with a friend who was helping her learn her lines for her next screen role. She was in a happy mood and, though it was only mid-morning, generously offered me champagne (which I declined) and an avocado (which I accepted: I am on a low-carb diet, so the tempting biscuits and mini pains au chocolat were off limits.) What was the first poetry Dame Judi had learned by heart? Was it A A Milne? Or Hilaire Belloc? Or Edward Lear? ‘Oh, no. It was Shakespeare. Even when I was very little I knew lots and lots of Shakespeare. I don’t know if I understood much of it, but I loved it. My older brother Jeffrey – he always wanted to be actor, so even when he was a boy he was quoting Shakespeare. I don’t remember reading it. I think I just picked it up from Jeff. I learnt lots of Shakespeare when I was a girl – the plays, the sonnets. I can give you lots of sonnets – and I can do all of Twelfth Night and all of Midsummer Night’s Dream, every word, I promise you.’ I believe her. Her love of Shakespeare is palpable. ‘My sight’s going now. If we had to go on stage now and read a sonnet, you’d have it written on just one page, but for me the print would be so big I’d need fourteen pages.’ She laughs, but she’s not joking. ‘Now I learn my lines with my friend, Pen. She reads me the lines and I repeat them. I can’t drive any more and I find that difficult, but I manage. But I couldn’t live without Shakespeare.’

Dame Judi has reams of poetry in her head and, like the Duchess, agrees that it’s the stuff with rhythm and rhyme that’s easiest to remember. ‘Shakespeare’s verse goes with the beat of your heart,’ she says – and she’s right.

Which brings us to the science - and the important bit.

I left Dame Judi and her friend Pen learning lines in the garden and made my way to Cambridge and the Memory Laboratory at Cambridge University’s Department for Neuroscience in Education. There I found Professor Usha Goswami – Indian father, German mother, and clearly a bit of genius, doing extraordinary work that one day, among other things, may help find a cure for dyslexia. In a nutshell, her research provides measurable proof of what my gut instinct has long told me: as you start out in life, having your parents recite poetry and sing songs to you will help you with your linguistic skills; as you grow older, learning poetry will, without question, keep dementia at bay.

You will find the detail in her learned paper: ‘A Neural Basis for Phonological Awareness? An Oscillatory Temporal Sampling Perspective’, published by the Association of Psychological Science. To cut to the chase, Professor Goswami has been studying and measuring what goes on inside the brains of babies and young children – measuring the neural oscillations (the brainwaves as it were) that encode the signals through which we begin to learn and understand speech. The metrical structures and rhythmic patterns of nursery rhymes coincide with the brain’s neural oscillations – starting with a trochaic rhythm (as in the beat of ‘The cat sat on the mat’) and quickly going on to the rhythm of the iambic pentameter (as in Shakespeare’s verse) which explains why Dame Judi Dench could quite easily have been spouting Shakespeare from the age of three or four. The professor and her team can measure the speech-sound awareness of babies, toddlers and young children and, on the basis of the data, accurately predict speech, reading and (wait for it!) even spelling development.

Never mind the scientific gobbledygook, what the professor’s studies of the ‘rhythmic synchronization across modalities’ establish is that the more you recite poetry to your children – before they are born as well as when they are babies and toddlers – the better they will be able to communicate, both when it comes to spoken and, later, even when it comes to written language. It’s amazing stuff, but I’ve seen the print-outs of the brain scans, I’ve struggled through the learned papers, I’ve met the team, and, while I only understood one word in five, I got the gist and I’m convinced.

Why do we remember best the poems we learnt as children, I asked the professor? ‘First in, last out, is the principle of it,’ she explained, trying to put it in layman’s terms for me. And why is the stuff we’ve learned later more difficult to recall? ‘It’s all still in there,’ she said, reassuringly. ‘It’s just sometimes difficult to retrieve because there is so much in there.’ The brain is a computer into which we are loading more and more stuff as the years go by. Those infamous ‘senior moments’ occur not because we have lost anything, but because it has been temporarily mislaid. It’s a retrieval issue, not a memory one. Concentrate and focus and you should be able to bring it back.

‘At whatever age you are,’ according to the professor, ‘you still have the capacity to learn new things if you put your mind to it. There’s no shortage of brain cells as you grow older.’

Recent research from the department of neurobiology at Columbia University has established that new brain cells grow as quickly when you are in your seventies as when you are in your twenties. Remembering things, it seems, does not have to get more difficult as you grow older. According to the scientists at Columbia, gradual mental decline ‘is not the inevitable process many of us think it is.’ The researchers made their discovery after counting the number of new cells growing in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memories and emotions. They found that around 700 brain cells were created each day even in the oldest people they studied, and that there was no difference in the hippocampus in young and old brains.

Back at Cambridge University, Professor Ushwami is unequivocal: learning poetry by heart is good for the brain. ‘So it’s true what they say,’ I suggested to her, ‘The brain is a muscle: if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘You’ve got the keep the brain active. I have colleagues here at Cambridge in their seventies, eighties and nineties – none of them has dementia. The exercise and discipline of learning a poem by heart is certainly going to help keep dementia at bay.’

Did you hear that? There is no excuse. If you want to do it, you can. The great actress Dame Sybil Thorndike lived into her nineties and famously made herself learn a new poem every day of her life to keep her brain active. Learning lines is good for you – and doable whatever your age. Dame Judi Dench, 83, is learning hers for her next film right now. Dame Maggie Smith, 83, has just learnt hers for the Downton Abbey film she is in the middle of making. Dame Eileen Atkins, 84, is opening in a new play in the West End any moment now. She is word perfect, of course. And my friend, Nicholas Parsons, 95 this month, is not only as razor-sharp as ever on Just A Minute, he is also touring the United Kingdom with a one-man show about Edward Lear in which he recites poem after poem after poem after poem – and doesn’t hesitate once.

Learning poetry by heart will make you a better parent and give you a longer, happier, richer mentally-active life. Fact.

The Duchess of Cornwall agrees. ‘Of course, it’s good for you – it’s good for everyone. It helps ward off dementia and that’s wonderful. It helps young children with their language skills and that’s wonderful, too.’

According to everyone I met making my radio programme, the poems that are easiest to learn are ones with a strong rhythm – and ones you have a feeling for. ‘You’ve got to love the poem you want to learn,’ said Michael Rosen. Professor Ushwami explained that you need to learn your poem by saying it out loud. Hearing the words and feeling the rhythm are important. Rhymes aren’t essential – but they are hooks that can help you in the learning process. Pick a poem you like and speak it out loud, then learn it, repeating it line by line, in the shower, in the kitchen, in the car, out of doors when you are taking a dog for a walk.

I have seven grandchildren and for Christmas I don’t want more socks (I have enough) and I don’t need more chocolates (I’ve had too many). I want each of them to learn a poem for me – Michael Rosen suggests Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas’; Dame Judi hopes at least one of them tries a Shakespeare sonnet; the Duchess recommends any of Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales’. It will be a challenge, but if they manage it the poems they will learn will be with them for the rest of their lives, good companions jostling around in the rattle bags of their minds.

And if the grandchildren can do it, so can the grandparents. Whatever your age, for the sake of your mind learn a poem by heart before Christmas. To encourage you, know that the Duchess of Cornwall, Dame Judi Dench, and I are going to give it a go, too.