How To Memorize A Sonnet This professor from UW-Madison is apparently doing a unit on the Sonnets, as I just got a whole bunch of links from that site in my reader. I don’t agree with the “learn every meaning of every word” part, especially when it comes to memorization.  There’s a famous example known as The Great Panjandrum that demonstrates the words don’t even have to make sense for you to be able to memorize them.  I did challenge an actor friend of mine with that one once, and he did successfully memorize it. I do, however, agree with the “put it to music” thing.  I know three sonnets by heart – 17, 18, and 29.  17 because I recited it at my wedding, the other two because I have them as music. As a matter of fact, it’s so easy that even a three year old could do it. I also agree with the overall point of understanding the thing, and not just learning a sequence of words.  Technically you can memorize a sequence of random words, but I’m not your professor, and I’d much rather you actually walk away with an understanding of what the sonnet is about.  I have sonnet 29 pinned to my wall.  I like to think it means, “Sometimes I’ve having a really lousy day and thinking about how my life sucks, but then I think of [in this case, my wife] and realize that I’m the richest man in the world.  I wouldn’t change a thing.”

11 thoughts on “How To Memorize A Sonnet

  1. Vendler says she would memorize each sonnet in order to understand it better (or, more properly, understand how it works). Understanding a sonnet in order to memorize it seems both wrong and pointless. One should memorize a sonnet because one loves it and wants to be able to recite it without having to look it up. The rhythm and the rhymes can help, but it’s wanting to do it that gets the job done.

  2. “Wrong and pointless”! Yikes! Consider me chastened.

    (And I’m certainly not a professor—I’m a TA grading the results, which is why I’ve worked to scaffold the prof’s assignment.)

    In my defense, I will say that my objective is not memorization-for-memorization’s sake: I’m eager to see incoming college first-years develop tools for getting at multiple meanings in Shakes’s sonnets and, ultimately, elsewhere. It is because of this objective that I advised students to look for puns and allusions in his text. I take Catkins’s point—and Helen Vendler’s—that at the more rarified levels of literary work meaning does not lead to memorization.

  3. Carl I believe it is a class assignment. Love of the subject matter is a bonus but if the prof says memorize you gotta memorize!

  4. “Learning by Heart”?

    Of course (teacher of teachers hat on) different students will have different hooks – dancing the poem, splitting it into nominal and verbal groups etc then colouring them and trying to physically rearrange them, carving the words on various trees in a park … bouncing your basketball in different parts of the court in rhythm as you say it; paint it; ahh, the human mind.

    Said it before – actors learn the lines (rather than memorise them) on the stage and in rehearsal – the physical memory.

    The simplistic idea that you need to love before you commit to memory is underestimating the power of the human mind to process in many different places and bring new meaning every time the poem is worked on … speaking out loud is a much broader action than recalling.

    Memorising can be the start of a relationship with the words that goes way beyond, “words, words, words.”

  5. When I was in college, one of our english profs made us memorize three poems. I remember picking “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and then making a full and complete mockery of it by doing a ridiculous rendition similar to what Martin Prince would have probably done. I think I even brought a fake lyre.

    My second choice was “Jabberwocky” and I basically KICKED IN the prof’s door and stormed in, like I was reciting an epic tale, like Gilgamesh! Huzzah!

    And I totally forget what the third was.

    Point is, 20 some odd years later, I remember them and the fun I had memorizing them and performing them. I think my prof gave me a C because I “mocked” the assignment, even though I was technically 100% on with the memorization part.

    twas brillig, and the slithy….

  6. All points very well taken. Memorization has its value, and it was memorization for memorization’s sake that I was moralizing against. I see nothing wrong with using memorization as a tool to understanding (as Vendler did) but I bridle at the use of it as a forced exercise. Amusings bnl obviously used some creativity to take an exercise in memorization and turn it to personal advantage (albeit without the grade that should have gone with it). But too often such exercises tend to stifle imagination and leave too little room for an individual to find his or her own way to understanding. If the objective is to have students understand a sonnet, make that the goal. If you think memorization might be a good tool to achieve that, suggest it as a possible means to that end, but not a requirement.

  7. There is, as always, an irony in all this – Shakespeare, if he went to school (and I don’t doubt he did), would have been committing to memory vast amounts of text – and he uses it in his work all the time. His ‘like snail’ suggests it was forced labour.

    Imagine his plays without his enforced memory content.

    I live in a country whose education system is still based on memorisation and regurgitation – not very creative but remarkably effective (if only they learnt the right things) at producing ‘knowledgeable’ people.

  8. Hmm, I wonder about that, Alan. Remember Ben Jonson’s snipe about Shakespeare’s “small Latin, and less Greeek.” I suspect he did more verbatim stealing from texts than regurgitation from memory. I am not sure his plays would have suffered one bit had he not had to memorize anything in school (assuming he had been given an alternative means of learning his lessons). I think college freshman would be better served reading editorial commentary on “The Sonnets” than trying to memorize them and work through the meanings on their own–that’s one of the reasons I wrote my variorum edition. Can we have a creative AND effective educationsal system?–Carl

  9. I'm an actor, and so my approach to Shakespeare is – yes – through memorization.

    If you really want to experience the power of a sonnet, commit it to memory (blank verse is easier to memorize than say Mamet) and then speak the sonnet in different contexts. I like to run verse through my head (or speak it) when I'm walking, doing errands etc.

    Also, a shout out to watch the excellent Playing Shakespeare DVDs – from the 80's. John Barton and the gang. There is a program on the sonnets.

  10. For school tomorrow I have to memorize sonnet 18 and I only know five lines and the couplet, what do I do?

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