Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What qualities make a poem especially good for committing to memory? In our extensive experience of compiling lists of poems for all occasions and needs, we’d say that ideally, the best poems to memorise or ‘learn by heart’ should 1) have a fairly regular rhythm or metre (as this can aid the memory), 2) rhyme, and 3) be fairly short. The poems we’ve compiled below all fit these criteria, so if you’re looking to impress your friends or increase your knowledge of poetry, these ten poems are great places to start.
1. William Shakespeare, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’.
This poem, containing one of the most famous opening lines in all of English poetry, represents a bold and decisive step forward in the sequence of Sonnets as we read them. For the first time, the key to the Fair Youth’s immortality lies not in procreation (as it had been in the previous 17 sonnets) but in Shakespeare’s own verse.
As it’s a sonnet – specifically, an English or Shakespearean sonnet (although Shakespeare didn’t actually invent the form named after him) – it’s only 14 lines, and can easily be committed to memory in one sitting, if you really go for it. Here’s how it begins:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date …
2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.
Another sonnet, with an opening line sometimes mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare, this poem was actually written by one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era, Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-61), for her husband, Robert Browning (who was also a poet, although by far the less successful one of the two when this poem appeared). It’s a fine love poem that can be committed to memory in a lunch break. The poem begins:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace …
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Break, Break, Break’.
This is perhaps the Tennyson poem to commit to memory, because: 1) it’s short; 2) its rhythm helps to divide up the lines in one’s memory and recall which bit comes where; and 3) its opening line is just the same three words, which helps! The poem was written in the wake of the sudden death of Tennyson’s close friend, Arthur Hallam, and is a fine elegy about the power of loss. It begins:
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me …
4. Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’
Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
Sonnets are especially good for memorising, because of the regular iambic pentameter rhythm (in most sonnets) and the 14-line limit, not to mention the rhyme scheme. This poem, written when Rossetti was still a teenager (!), is a moving but also stoical poem in which the speaker entreats her loved ones to remember her when she dies, but not to make themselves sad over her death:
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay …
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’.
There are plenty of short Emily Dickinson poems which deserve to be committed to memory, and as she favoured the short lyric and the quatrain form, her poems are a gift to the wannabe poet-quoter.
If you want to impress your friends with your ability to reel off lines of enigmatic verse, how about this charmingly macabre poem, in which Dickinson’s speaker speaks of her meeting with Death? The poem begins:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality …
6. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
Any selection of poems to memorise should feature this classic example of nonsense verse. The full poem first appeared in Carroll’s 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, his superb follow-up book to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and as well as giving us several new words now in common use (see the link above to discover more, and to read the full poem), it is also a glorious short narrative poem about a hero slaying a monster. What’s not to like?
Learning some of the poem’s glorious coinages (‘snickersnack’, ‘vorpal’, ‘bandersnatch’) off by heart can provide hours of fun:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …
7. A. E. Housman, ‘Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now’.
Housman (1859-1936) may not have revolutionised poetry in the way that some of the other names on this list did, but of all the poets included here, he is perhaps the one whose work most easily lends itself to being learned by heart. His fondness for regular rhyme schemes and verse forms, his plain and direct use of language, and his ability to articulate deeply felt sentiments in affecting and moving verse, all make Housman a join to learn, and carry around, ‘by heart’.
This poem, which sees Housman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’ observing the cherry blossom on the trees and reflecting, as a young lad of twenty, that he has only fifty years left of his biblical three-score and ten, is a case in point:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide …
8. Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
Like Housman, then, Frost favoured traditional verse forms but also a plain-spoken yet lyrical style. And although many people know the words in the final stanza of this poem, a good many people misinterpret them – and how well does anyone know the rest of ‘The Road Not Taken’? Why not commit this classic poem about opting for the road ‘less travelled’ to memory…
9. W. H. Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’.
Memorably recited in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral – the success of which led to a whole new generation discovering Auden’s poetry – this elegy actually started life as a parody of public obituaries, although its sentiment can be taken as sincere as well, which shows Auden’s genius. The four quatrains of this poem make it the ideal length to commit to memory.
10. Stevie Smith, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’.
Let’s conclude this pick of great poems to learn by heart with a poem from one of the twentieth-century’s most distinctive and eccentric voices: Stevie Smith (1902-71), poet, novelist, and artist, who in this, her most famous poem, comprising just twelve easy-to-memorise lines, talks about a man who drowns when people mistook his signal for help as the act of waving …
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.