[Milton-L] students memorizing poems

Elizabeth Sagaser ehsagase at colby.edu
Sun Feb 22 15:41:17 EST 2004

Hi everyone,

In answer to a recent list question-- yes, I always have my students 
memorize poems, and quite a few of them!--in all poetry lit. 
classes--Renaissance, 17th c., Milton, Love and Loss in the English 
Lyric, Lyric Self and Other, intro to Literary Studies--

I can't emphasize how successful this practice has been. The students 
almost always express excitement and gratitude about the opportunity 
to gain skill in this most close kind of reading--learning by heart. 
They are usually thrilled to inhabit poems so fully they can speak 
them with conviction.

[BEFORE you go on, a small warning: This is a topic I'm passionate 
about. And so, yes, on rereading this message just now, I noticed it 
is indeed long. So only read on, of course, if you are interested.]

I give students many choices of poems to learn, with certain 
guidelines. Their treasure hunting or shopping for the poems they 
want to keep is itself an intense activity, one that makes them read 
lots of poems more carefully.

Often my entire final exam consists in each student learning 84 lines 
of poetry, 4-6 poems. We often meet at a local cafe for them to speak 
the poems to me--very memorable, or in my office, if that is more 
convenient for the student. I don't have students recite before the 
class with the exception of short stanzas when all class members are 
collectively learning a poem and sharing the presentation of it, or 
when a student is eager to speak lines before an audience.

Maybe one reason I've had such good results with poetry memorization 
in my classes is because I begin every class of the semester with a 
poem I know by heart. Students have said many times on evaluations 
how they love this. They certainly see how it is an intense way to 
know a poem.

I also recommend they memorize any poems they plan to write papers 
on, as a way to be sure they've read the poems thoroughly and 
experienced a sense of motivation between all lines, images, stanzas, 

Dave Harper and a couple of other professors on this list I note do 
some wonderful creative things with student memorization. I've also 
had musical students set poems to music; one senior scholar memorized 
75 Shakespeare sonnets as a final project, and  all year did 
Shakespeare events--coffee house performances of spoken sonnets and 
sonnets set to guitar music, concerts with another student 
song-writer, and presentations for local 5th graders. IN fact, when 
this kid wiped out on a black-diamond ski trail at Sugarloaf with no 
helmet, so his roommates tell me, all he could remember in the medic 
room of the ski lodge was sonnet 18, and asked the ski patrol, "Shall 
I compare thee to a summer's day?" etc.  They let him go, even though 
he didn't know the date!

  Another highlight rooted in student memorizing: a group of talented 
student film makers recently made a gem of a film: "Astrophil and 
Stella, the Movie." It presents a bunch of Sidney sonnets, memorized 
by the actor playing Astrophil, of course. There is no other text in 
the film but these sonnets. They are shot in but in familiar but 
sometimes hilarious local settings, and feature spliced-in images 
enlivening the Elizabeth metaphors.

For anyone interested in how I present an assignment of memorizing, 
below is a sample of an Unconventional Final Exam.  This one is a 
couple of years old, but usually my guidelines are similar.

(I've also presented a lot of my ideas about teaching meter and form 
in early modern poetry classes in "Flirting with Eternity:Teaching 
Form and Meter in a Renaissance Poetry Course" in _Renaissance 
LIterature and its Formal Engagements_ [Palgrave 2002], ed. Mark 

EN 314   Seventeenth Century Poetry, Sagaser, fall 2001, 
Unconventional Final Exam

May "well-tuned words amaze" you anytime, anywhere.

Here is your chance to truly READ CLOSELY, to ignore no part of a 
poem, to demand of yourself the imagining of a speaker's or 
character's state of mind and life, discovering in some cases how 
this state of mind and life overlaps with your own.

Here is your chance to fully experience the performative nature of 
many seventeenth-century poems and to try your hand at playing 

Here is your chance to experience how form and meter were discovered 
and maintained in the interest of making poems permanent parts of 

The Requirements:

You must learn at least 5 poems, speeches, or passages from longer poems.
You must learn at least 84 lines total (you may exceed 84 lines).

You choose the poems!  However, they must be distributed like this:

At least two lyric poems from the first half of the semester (pre-midterm)
At least one passage (6 lines or more) from Paradise Lost
At least one speech (10 lines or more) from A Winter's Tale

Note: meeting these distribution requirements leaves you with one 
elective--another lyric poem, another passage from PL, or another 
speech from WT.

Presenting Your Poems:

Make a hard copy of the poems you file in your memory, both for your 
convenience learning them and for my convenience tracking your 
learning. Hand this script to me when you meet me to recite your 

Schedule an individual meeting with me to recite your poems. Several 
days and times will be available during the finals period, both in my 
office and at the Riverside Farm Market Café (very close to campus, 
down Rice's Ripps Road). I'll post a sign-up sheet soon on my door.

I've offered this final four times before, and in all these 
instances, nearly everyone discovered that memorizing poems is not so 
hard and speaking them aloud is rather enjoyable. However, to help 
reduce anxiety, I do have a second at-bat policy. If you feel badly 
about your first recitation, you can schedule another without 
penalty--time providing. Usually no one decides to do this, though.

Now, A Bit of Advice:

Do not delay beginning to learn your poems. Bring your script 
everywhere. You can make great progress while waiting in lines, while 
doing laundry, while watching football games, while working out on 
the treadmill or Stairmaster, while falling asleep at night, while 
eating lunch. Ask you WT actor friends for tips, and let me know if 
you would like some additional advice or reassurance.

NOTE: An excellent last journal entry could be a reflection on the 
process of learning your poems and an informal explanation of your 

Elizabeth Sagaser

Elizabeth Harris Sagaser
Associate Professor
English Dept.
Colby College
Mayflower Hill Dr.
Waterville, ME 04901
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