The Artwork on the Walls of Our Minds
Written by Victoria Barry
Some people may think it’s crazy to expect high school students to memorize and recite a 280 line poem. Dr. Ellen Condict thinks otherwise. Her high school seniors at Hillsdale Academy memorize Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” an absolutely brilliant piece commemorating five nuns who drowned as exiles because of their religious beliefs. By the time these students graduate, they will have memorized approximately 1,000 lines of poetry.
Dr. Condict admits that there is nothing practical about memorizing poetry, but there is something beautiful about knowing a poem by heart. As she shares, “The real benefit is for students who engage their hearts when memorizing and performing. Once you have memorized a poem you possess it in some way, and over time the sense of it sinks into you in a way that can’t happen with just reading.”
To further illustrate the importance of memorization, Dr. Condict uses this beautiful analogy: “I tell my students that the brain is the one house you are never going to abandon. We put stuff in our brains that we know we want to keep there. The stuff we memorize is the artwork on the walls. Like artwork one sees every day, the poems we memorize often sit in our brains unnoticed, but every once in a while you’ll be struck by something, and random bits of distantly memorized poems will come to mind.”
Dr. Condict’s journey with Hopkins began when she was in graduate school: “I started listening to the CD of Richard Austin reciting Hopkins’ poetry. I put it in my car and didn’t take it out again, except to copy it so that I could have it in every room of my house. It didn’t leave the car stereo for years.” Hopkins provided her with a “wonderful sort of antidote” to her difficult graduate years. She describes his poetry as “incredibly soothing” and considers it as a backdrop to her daily life.
Along with the loveliness of his language, Dr. Condict says that Hopkins retains a very real sense of human experience while still loving the created order. “He doesn’t gloss over human difficulty. The sincerity is always there.” She cherishes how Hopkins expresses “the particularities and beauty of the created world without making a vague haze, and retains a very real sense of the human experience.”
Eliot, whom she also teaches in class, differs from Hopkins in this. She relates that “his poetry becomes in a way less specific. He keeps coming back to mystery and the pursuit of truth and understanding.” Unlike Hopkins, Eliot does not abound in specific images. Rather, the reader is “brought to the brink of a moment and left with mystery.” Wanting to acquaint herself with Eliot even further, Dr. Condict is currently memorizing “The Four Quartets.”
Dr. Condict teaches college level courses at Hillsdale on Hopkins and Eliot in which her students study and discuss the work of these wonderful authors and memorize 200 lines of their poetry. As she quips, “Sitting around and talking about Hopkins—that’s not school, that’s just pure fun!”
Victoria Barry, ’16, is majoring in English with a classical education minor. She is the president of the A.A. Milne Society, an editor for the Tower Light, an active member of the Catholic Society, and a volunteer at Mary Randall Preschool.