Research and Professional Development

Poetry And Memory

Heart Beats

Adults of a certain generation reading this are likely to remember memorising and reciting poetry at school themselves. Not as an extra-curricular project such as Poetry By Heart, but as a central part of the English curriculum. Some talk about these days with nostalgia, perhaps quoting a few memorable lines…others recall them with fear! Too often, rote learning produced robotic recitation. And so in the years since, this rote learning was replaced by teachers focusing on analysis of the poem as written text.

A Cambridge University study, launched in January 2014, is in the process of examining this landscape. The project, spearheaded by David Whitley and Debbie Pullinger, will contribute to the research-base of educational policy-makers, curriculum designers and teachers. The central question to be asked is what is the relationship between memorisation, recitation and understanding?

The project wants to explore a nation’s collective understanding of spoken poetry, and so is eager to get the nation involved. If this piques your interest you can take part in a survey here and make your voice heard!


Catherine Robson’s magnificent Heart Beats: Everyday life and the memorized poem explores the 19th and early 20th century history of poetry recitation in the US and UK. Published in 2012, just as we got going with the first iteration of Poetry By Heart, it helped us develop a deeper understanding of the longer historical context of our project. There is scrutiny of three poems which appear on the Poetry By Heart timeline – ‘Casabianca’ (Felicia Hemans), ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ (Thomas Gray) and ‘The burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna’ (Charles Wolfe). There are comparisons drawn between the British and American styles, as well as the current attitudes towards the idea of memorising and reciting poetry.

A full review of Catherine Robson’s Heart Beats can be read here, written by Poetry By Heart director Julie Blake:

Princeton University Press’ summary of the book can be found here: