From Memory and By Heart

By Maeve Maddox

A headline on the National Public Radio (NPR) site prompted this post:

A Self-Taught Artist Paints the Rain Forest By Memory

The more common idiom for doing something that is recalled and not seen is to do it “from memory.” From is more appropriate than by in this idiom because memory may be regarded as a receptacle and not as an agent. For example:

Painting from memory can be just as productive as painting from sight.

If you’ve ever repeated a rhyming poem from memory in front of an audience, you’ve given a recitation.

Pewsey clergyman Canon Gerald Osborne is to perform a remarkable feat of faith and memory by reciting in public the whole of Mark’s Gospel from memory.

George Doi, a nisei, reconstructed the map from memory in March 1993.

The process of committing something to memory for later recall is “to learn it by heart.”

Learning texts by heart once held a more valued place in the elementary and high school curriculum than it does now.

When I was a child, school children were encouraged to memorize poems like Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and speeches like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

In her 90s, my mother could still recite poems she learned as a child in the Chicago public schools.

Visiting a family in France one summer, I was treated to the experience of hearing members of three generations recite a tale of Fontaine—in unison and with great mutual pride. Poems learned “by heart” in childhood enrich the rest of life.

Here are some examples of the idiom “by heart”:

Learning poetry by heart ignites the imagination—Andrew Motion.

Miss Allan encouraged us to learn poetry by heart, for which I am everlastingly grateful now that I am registered as blind and still have memories of some of the loveliest poems ever written.

In Poems to Learn by Heart, Kennedy stresses the importance of memorizing poetry and presents a collection of poems that she believes everyone should internalize.

[David Cameron] said his youngest daughter Florence was so obsessed with the movie [Frozen] that he found he’d learned it off by heart.

Note: Learning “by heart” is not the same thing as learning “by rote.” Rote learning is more or less mindless. Learning a poem one neither likes nor understands for the sake of reciting it one time for a grade is a pointless exercise. Learning a poem or a speech “by heart,” on the other hand, is a process that engages the mind and the emotions.

Bottom line: We recite from memory what we have learned by heart.

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3 Responses to “From Memory and By Heart”

  • Robin Casaus

    I recently read this headline in my newspaper :
    Six of seven APS board members don’t walk public trust talk
    The article continued:
    Instead of walking all that public trust talk they simply shut the public out.
    I’ve never heard the word “walk” used in that way. Does it have to do with “walking the walk”?

  • Cygnifier

    Nice article. It brings to mind the poetry my grandmother recited with east. Just a note on “rote” memory. It is not learning mindlessly. It is the process of learning through repetition and can be one of the most valuable tools of learning. We learn multiplication tables, professional vocabulary, poetry, music, and many other things by rote learning. Yes, there is some rote learning of useless knowledge, but the recent disdain for rote learning seriously undermines the necessity for coming to know the basics of most fields of knowledge. We definitely want medical students to use rote learning to know the bones and muscles of the body. We definitely want law students to have command of the terms of the legal field. Rote learning is one of the fundamental building blocks of knowledge and it has little to do with engaging the emotions and everything to do with engaging the mind to create command of information. The “I don’t need to know it because I can look it up” means an impoverished level of understanding in any field of knowledge.

  • ApK

    The phrase “learn by heart” doesn’t sound right to me. “KNOW by heart” I’m more familiar with.
    Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits album is, after all, called “Songs You Know by Heart,” not “Songs You Learned by Heart!”

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