22 Jul 2009

Memorisation and The Man

I don't know about you, but this section on memorisation in Charlotte Mason's first book, Home Education, has always intrigued me. It is long, but do take the time for a quick skim:

Recitation and committing to memory are not necessarily the same thing, and it is well to store a child's memory with a good deal of poetry, learnt without labour. Some years ago I chanced to visit a house, the mistress of which had educational notions of her own, upon which she was bringing up a niece. She presented me with a large foolscap sheet written all over with the titles of poems, some of them long and difficult: Tintern Abbey, for example. She told me that her niece could repeat to me any of those poems that I liked to ask for, and that she had never learnt a single verse by heart in her life. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without hesitation; and then the lady unfolded her secret. She thought she had made a discovery, and I thought so too. She read a poem through to E.; then the next day, while the little girl was making a doll's frock, perhaps, she read it again; once again the next day, while E.'s hair was being brushed. She got in about six or more readings, according to the length of the poem, at odd and unexpected times, and in the end E. could say the poem which she had not learned.

I have tried the plan often since, and found it effectual. The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems as 'Dolly and Dick,' 'Do you ask what the birds say?' Little lamb, who made thee?' and the like. The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child's enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed.

I remember once discussing this subject with the late Miss Anna Swanwick in some connection with Browning of which I do not recall, but in the course of talk an extremely curious incident transpired. A lady, a niece of Miss Swanwick's, said that after a long illness, during which she had not been allowed to do anything, she read 'Lycidas' through, by way of a first treat to herself as a convalescent. She was surprised to find herself then next day repeating to herself long passages. Then she tried the whole poem and found she could say it off, the result of this single reading, for she had not learned the poem before her illness, nor read it with particular attention. She was much elated by the treasure-trove she had chanced upon, and to test her powers, she read the whole of 'Paradise Lost,' book by book, and with the same result, - she could repeat it book by book after a single reading! She enriched herself by acquiring other treasures during her convalescence; but as health returned, and her mind became preoccupied with many interests, she found she no longer had this astonishing power. It is possible that the disengaged mind of a child is as free to take and as strong to hold beautiful images clothed in beautiful words as was that of this lady during her convalescence. But, let me again say, every effort of the kind, however unconscious, means wear and tear of brain substance. Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others,
attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. At the same time, when there is so much noble poetry within a child's compass, the pity of it, that he should be allowed to learn twaddle!

Charlotte Mason Home Education pp 224-226

I find this ability compelling.

Now I have often spoken of Jemimah's ability to memorise. She is easily able to learn long passages of Scripture of a chapter or more, and, more amusingly, can recite ad verbatim much of the Classical Kids CDs that we listen to for composer study, funny Canadian accents and all. But these are not Tintern Abbey. Tintern Abbey is L..O..N..G . (If you don't know Wordsworth's poem, here it is - look at the length.)

Well, her theories on health and evolution aside, I have rarely found Miss Mason to be wrong. Certainly not on her area of expertise - education.

Just over two weeks ago, I decided to put Miss Mason's experience to the test. I am aware that our ability to memorise diminishes as we grow older - the Grammar Stage of the Classical Educationalists - that time when they cram their kids full of facts - only lasts until the age of 8 or 9 because that is when they do it best. At seven, I decided that for Jemimah the time was ripe.

Instead of Tintern Abbey we chose an Australian classic poem, Banjo Paterson's The Man from Snowy River.
The Man From Snowy River, by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup,
The old man with his hair as white as snow;
But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up -
He would go wherever horse and man could go.
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle-girths would stand -
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.

And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast;
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony - three parts thoroughbred at least -
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry - just the sort that won't say die -
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his quick and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.

But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, "That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop - lad, you'd better stop away,
These hills are far too rough for such as you."
So he waited, sad and wistful - only Clancy stood his friend -
"I think we ought to let him come," he said;
"I warrant he'll be with us when he's wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.

"He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough;
Where a horse's hooves strike firelight from the flintstones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy river riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen."

So he went: they found the horses by the big mimosa clump,
They raced away towards the mountain's brow,
And the old man gave his orders, "Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills."

So Clancy rode to wheel them - he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stock-horse past them and he made the ranges ring
With the stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden dash,
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.

Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black,
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their way,
Where mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, "We may bid the mob good day,
NO man can hold them down the other side."

When they reached the mountain's summit, even Clancy took a pull -
It well might make the boldest hold their breath;
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint-stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat -
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

He was right among the horses as they climbed the farther hill,
And the watchers on the mountain, standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely; he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges - but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam;
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted, cowed and beaten; then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around the Overflow the reed-beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The Man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

A.B. "Banjo" Paterson
If anything, The Man from Snowy River is longer than Tintern Abbey, but there is more of a story. We decided to give it a try.

Every day I've been reading her the poem while she plays. Sometimes it doesn't even look like she's listening. Some afternoons I've put our iPod recording of the poem read by David Tredinnick on while she follows along through the pages of this book illustrated by Freya Blackwood.

And the verdict thus far? After 2 1/2 weeks - 13 school days - Jemimah knows to 'So he went'. That's 5/13 verses. I'm pretty impressed. Well, to tell you the truth, I'm gobsmacked. Miss Mason was right again. We'll keep going with the poem until the end of term or so, another threeish weeks. I'll report back with our progress then, if you're interested.

The opening lines of this poem are amongst the best known words in Australian literature, and The Man gained popularity for another generation of Aussies when it was used in the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Who will forget that solitary horserider galloping into the arena and cracking his stockwhip to 'Let the Games begin'?

This is an ideal poem for memorising. Its grippingly exciting story coupled with a wonderful galloping rhythm make it wonderful to read out loud, and easier to remember. It is also a bit of Australiana that is oft quoted and oftener talked about. The opening lines are part of our family's vernacular - when somebody rises late after the rest of us are up and about they will often be greeted with "Ah, there was movement at the station"!

If Miss Mason's method of memorisation really works - as indeed it appears to - then this poem will be a wonderful one to know... It is a true blue Aussie Classic.


  1. Hi Jeanne,
    That is a beautiful way of memorising poetry!

    Well done, Jemimah - keep up the good work.

  2. Hi Jeanne,
    i've made the link to your request, i've left it in the comment of the post in my blog so please come back to get it! I will be deleting it in a few days. thanks!

  3. Those rollicking bush ballads are my favourites and as you say, this is how we learnt them as kids! Just hearing them read regularly, and sometimes sung. I had a great tape with Leonard Teale reciting Banjo Patterson when the girls were young. We played it a lot but I don't think they learned them. The boys have had to put up with me reading to them. Must admit I love them more than the kids. Even if they don't memorize them, as you say, it is part of Australian folk lore being imparted.
    Thanks Jeanne and have a great week.

  4. Hello again Jeanne,
    You are a precious and thoughtful friend :0) I left a little speel on my comments.
    I hope you don't get an inflated idea of me - I'm just struggling along like everyone else!

  5. Great work, Jemimah! Keep at it. Maybe Mom will record you final recitation! I had Bethie copy her memorized poems into a special book to keep them. Sadly, since she's going back to public school I doubt she'll add to the book anymore unless they still make you memorize the Gettysburg Address in 8th grade--I shocked my kids a year or two ago by still being able to recite it and, unlike the Preamble to the Constitution I didn't have a "School House Rock" song to sing it to! Keep doing the memorizing--think of Sir Winston Churchill reciting poetry until death at 90 or so!

  6. I have seen a Youtube video once of a little 2 year old quoting a chapter out of Luke - from memory I think it's about the birth of Jesus etc... I was super impressed. The parents were able to get him to that simply by reading the chapter every day to him.

    I started to do this once with the Chloe Dolly but it got too much for me and I forgot to keep it up.

    I must try it again some time with some other things as well.

    The Man from Snowy River is a classic. I'd like to use that one day as well.

  7. That's wonderful, Jeanne. I must find some poems to read to the girls. So many of these "extra" things get forgotten in our busy household!
    I can still recall much of "The Man from Ironbark" which we studied many years ago at Geelong Christian School :-)

  8. I have to be honest that I personally I'm not good at memorizing. And thus I'm a bit prejudiced against the skill. In fact, I've always considered it inferior. As in, memorize but don't understand or can apply. But I totally admire what you've done with your daughter. I need to get over my memorization hangups.

  9. Hi Jeanne,
    What a wonderful post. This was just what I needed to read given that we've just started to get back into regular memory work! A great reminder of CM's thoughts on the subject too.

    Well done Jemimah :)


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