In Skyfall, the latest of the James Bond films, M (played by Judi Dench) recites from memory the last few lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses." While M claims to remember the poem because her late husband was fond of it, the film's viewers more likely encountered Tennyson's poem in a different setting: at school. They may even have been asked to memorize it, and if so they were participating in a long tradition of mandatory recitation, a tradition Catherine Robson explores in this book.
On a panel at the 2013 MLA convention, Robson argued that commitment to education is perhaps the nineteenth century's single most important legacy. And certainly education has long held a central place in Victorian studies. But if the topic is an old one, Robson's approach is refreshingly new. Examining the practice of memorizing and reciting poetry in both British and American schools, this book ranges from the history of education to poetic form and working-class autobiography. As we might expect from the editor of the Victorian volume of the Norton Anthology, Robson presents her book as a contribution to Victorian studies, but her subject stretches well beyond Victoria's reign. "The idea that the ethos of the Victorian era came to a sudden and decisive end has long-standing currency" Robson tells us, and "switching attention from the production to the consumption of texts ... offers a complementary perspective (19).
Besides outlasting in its influence the end of the nineteenth century, the Victorian ethos was largely defined by poems from earlier periods. For the case studies that make up the second half of her book Robson chooses Felicia Hemans's "Casabianca" (1826), Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" (1751), and Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" (1817). Though Gray's "Elegy" is quintessentially canonical, the others have typically been neglected by academics. Yet according to Robson, "[t]he very qualities of formal regularity, thematic transparency, and cultural centrality" that resist our "set moves of close reading" render these poems "suitable for the school's mode of engagement with the literary" (25). Robson not only highlights "prototypical 'best-loved poems'" usually omitted from academic canons (21-2) but also expands our canon of evidence by showing how these poems feature in school reports, poetry anthologies, and the letters and diaries of (mostly working-class) individuals.
Much recent scholarship has sought to breach the barriers between the Romantic and Victorian periods, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and British and American literature. As Robson crosses these barriers, both her method and her argument challenge our author-centered view of literary periods. She implicitly accepts William St. Clair's argument that any properly historical study must "span the reading of a minimum of two or three generations, as individual readers passed through the whole cycle from first reading as a child to ceasing to read in old age or at death" (Reading Nation (2004), 4). Showing how adults' feelings about poetry were shaped by what they memorized and recited as children, Robson indeed spans multiple generations. The poems she chooses for her case studies were all published well before the late-Victorian period, when classroom recitation became standard practice, and the effects of this practice were felt well into the twentieth century, as the children who were made to memorize and recite these poems grew to be adults.
By the end of the Victorian period, Robson reports, "the memorization of poetry was not an elective pursuit but a mandatory element of mass educational systems" (4). The interplay of "mass" and "mandatory" provides the impetus for Robson's study, for myriads of children were required to learn poems by heart. In the first half of the book, Robson traces the history of British and American education from the eighteenth-century Sunday school movements through the end of the nineteenth century. In Britain, the codifying of standards in the 1860s had the most impact on the recitation of poetry in schools: "Because schools and teachers were subject to monetary penalties if their pupils did not satisfy visiting examiners that they could meet the prescribed standards, rote learning further strengthened its grip on the classroom" (58). The emphasis on rote memorization laid the groundwork for later reforms, and by 1875 "recitations of specified line-lengths were placed in the requirements for basic standards" (61). In America, state legislatures' adoption of mandated textbooks meant relative uniformity in what students read. Not only was recitation generally expected from about 1870 through the first half of the twentieth century, but as Robson writes, "from the turn of the century onwards, American educational administrators began to name specific literary works within their curricula, thus involving themselves much more directly than their British counterparts in the business of poem selection" (65). American schoolchildren were required to memorize many of the same poems.
The three case studies extend Robson's argument beyond merely recovering a lost pedagogical practice. Though extremely popular in the early nineteenth century, Hemans's "Casabianca" -- known best by its first line, "The boy stood on the burning deck" -- became a subject for parody by the twentieth. Robson asks "how it happens that a poem that is important to the people of one historical period becomes laughable, distasteful, or simply meaningless to those of another" (94). To answer this question, Robson reminds us that mandatory recitation was commonly enforced with corporal punishment. Reciting under the threat of the rod, Victorian children were "subjected, however successfully or unsuccessfully, to an educational praxis that made a profound physical and emotional connection between the literature it assigned and the bodies that read that literature" (95). Mandatory recitation affected both minds and bodies. At the same time, it left its stamp on the poems being recited. The meter of "Casabianca" might seem to us more regular than it really is because it was commonly chosen for recitation by elementary-school children, who could hardly grasp its prosodic subtleties. The poem does not actually have "an absolutely regular unvarying meter," Robson writes, but it "became an ultraregular poem, and thus a byword for unthinking jog-trot meter, through that very process of constrained and unthinking memorization" (116). Thus one of the nineteenth century's best-known poems gradually faded to near-oblivion, doomed by the very practice that made it so well-known in the first place.
The screenwriters of Skyfall probably chose "Ulysses" for its famously inspirational final line. But Tennyson's poem is an especially appropriate choice in a film about aging spies finding their place in the world, and M recites a poem whose theme underscores the film's own. Likewise, Robson's study of Gray's "Elegy" considers how children might internalize the theme of a poem they memorized, not just its words and rhythms. In Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) William Empson claims that the essential meaning of Gray's poem "is that eighteenth-century England had no scholarship system" (qtd. Robson 144). Empson's joke makes sense only because such a system did exist in 1935, and it had taken shape in the late Victorian period, when Gray's poem held a leading place in a tradition of mandatory mass recitation. The "Elegy," therefore, was "eventually read and recited by the poor themselves, the very people it dubs both unlettered and mute" (132). What might it mean to a scholarship student, Robson asks, to memorize a poem about his or her own social class remaining "mute and inglorious"?
Though Robson occasionally gets lost in the details of working-class autobiographies, her second case study nevertheless fascinatingly shows how the mass education provided by the 1870 education act shaped the children being taught. Dennis Taylor finds it amazingly paradoxical that, even though Gray's poetic diction is considered remote from everyday speech, "no poet has been more accepted into our language" (qtd. Robson 135). But the pervasiveness of the "Elegy" in the Victorian classroom, Robson counters, "makes its thoroughgoing infiltration of everyday linguistic usage seem, on the whole, rather unsurprising" (135). Mandatory recitation thus helped standardize pronunciation and solidify class differences. Nevertheless, many children took genuine pleasure in recitation generally, and particularly in Gray's poem.
Robson's third and final case study links Charles Wolfe's "Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" to the "massive change in memorial practices that occurs roughly between the time of Sir John Moore and 1915" (197). In both Britain and America, she writes, Moore's poem "was endlessly repeated during the nineteenth century in times of war or other circumstances that did not permit the performance of a decent burial" (197). During the American Civil War, authors of diaries, letters, and wartime journals often quoted Moore's phrase, "no useless coffin," and its currency attended the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery in 1864. Moore's popularity also helped prompt the British government to establish a military unit to mark soldiers' graves, whenever and wherever possible. By thus linking Moore's short poem to a political and cultural practice that today affects millions, in both the United States and in Great Britain, Robson shows how the mandatory recitation of poetry affected life outside the academy. Concluding with a brief review of the reception history of two late Victorian favorites, Rudyard Kipling's "If --" and W.E. Henley's "Invictus," she reminds us that Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, wrote out the latter poem as his final statement.
Robson's book has much to offer anyone interested in how poetry was read throughout the nineteenth century, not by poets or critics but by ordinary men and women with no particular proclivity for reading verse. It also illuminates the relation between poetry and corporal punishment, class differences in classrooms, and military burials. Given its findings on the impact of memorization and recitation, I would like to have seen a conclusion pointing to a wider application of her method. Or is that perhaps the job of the reviewer rather than the author?
To be fair, I should note that Robson ends the first section of the book by discussing the broad effects of memorizing poetry, including "the memorized poem's role in promoting and demonstrating pride in one's country or one's empire" (74). She thus raises the kinds of questions explored in Antoinette Burton's Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism and Sukanya Bannerjee's Becoming Imperial Citizens. Since Bannerjee in particular shows how education led to citizenship for late-Victorian Indians, I now wonder how mandatory recitation fared in other parts of the British empire. Robson's study of Gray's "Elegy" and school scholarships reveals a good deal about class--especially the education of the working class-- within Britain itself. Also, her focus on individual readers within a public context -- "an institutional and an emotional history" (5) -- continues the affective approach found in Rachel Ablow's collection The Feeling of Reading, to which Robson contributed an essay about the Alice books. While the present book foregrounds consumers of texts more than the texts themselves, the earlier essay considers how an understanding of pedagogical practices might shift our conception of the genre of "prosimetric" works such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which mixes poetry and prose. Now we could ask about other pedagogical standards or other kinds of schools: did the university lecture establish a habit of note-taking or an outbreak of carpal tunnel in Victorian adults? Did object-oriented learning and an increased focus on the sciences in elementary schools make for a more skilled workforce in an industrial era? This book raises such questions and provides a method by which they might be addressed.
Patrick C. Fleming is a visiting assistant professor at Rollins College. His book project, portions of which are forthcoming in Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Journal of Narrative Theory, connects Romantic-era children's tales to Victorian novelists who grew up reading them.