Does rote learning poems bring comfort and strengthen identity?



From the poetic anthologies called (1698) to ‘Pills to Purge Melancholy\’ and \’The Merry Companion or a Cure for the Spleen’ (1730) to AA Milne\’s declaration that \’poetry and hums aren\’t things which you get, they\’re things which get you\’, it has long been thought that poetry makes you feel better. The initial findings of research by academics at Oxford University and the University of Reading suggest that this is notion is true and that remembering rote learnt poems brings comfort and strengthens identity.

Dr Abigail Williams of Oxford University\’s English Faculty and Dr Clare Rathbone of the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences are challenging members of the public to remember the poems that are significant to them in an online survey on National Poetry Day (Thursday 6 October) and to describe their memories and feelings relating to these poems. The survey aims to quantify the effects of poetry, asking people to give details of three poems and state what age they were when they learnt the poem.

\’Rote learning has become a dirty word in educational theory because it is not seen as a creative or enabling way of learning,\’ said Dr Abigail Williams of St Peter’s, Oxford University. \’But results from our survey so far suggest that over the course of our lives these poems often acquire an emotional significance for us – poems learnt off by heart are significantly more likely to be used to bring comfort than those not learnt by heart. These preliminary results indicate that poetry makes you feel better and plays a significant role in self-development and the establishment of personal meaning and identity.\’

Dr Williams added: ‘We hope our survey might shed more light on the therapeutic possibilities of poetry – as we know, Alzheimer’s sufferers may forget people’s names, but they can often remember bits of poetry they learned by heart when they were only 10, and often these poems are associated with happy memories which in turn improve mood. This study helps to show us what kinds of psychological role learnt verse plays in our mental makeup. ‘We’d be really grateful if people could give 10 minutes of their time to fill in the survey because it has the potential to improve our understanding of the significance and effects of poetry. As academics, we tend to know a lot about what poetry means in a historical or critical sense, but very little about what it means for ordinary people.’

Dr Clare Rathbone, a psychologist at the University of Reading, added: \’Psychologists have shown that when people look back over their lives, they tend to be particularly good at remembering events from young adulthood (aged 15 to 30), a phenomenon known as the \’reminiscence bump\’. This period of life is also when many people say they encountered their favourite films, songs and books.

‘Psychologists think that people remember young adulthood best because this is when they are forming a sense of adult identity, and experiencing important self-defining events like getting jobs, starting relationships and deciding who they want to be. As a result of this, experiences from this time tend to be remembered more vividly, and more readily, than experiences from other times of life.’

Dr Rathbone added: \’Our study shows that memories of personally significant poems tend to come from young adulthood (even when we exclude poems people had to learn for school or university) so these fall under the \’reminiscence bump\’. It’s interesting that people\’s most personally significant poems come from this time of identity-development, as this suggests that poems might play an important role in shaping people’s sense of self. This novel line of research could provide insight into the ways people use and remember the poems that are personally significant to them.\’