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Poems to Memorize, Recite, and Learn by Heart: For Fun, Forensics Meets, and Profit

by Jough Dempsey

9 February 2005

Traditionally poems would be recited and memorized, passed from poet to poet through the ages. It is only recently that poetry is something that one reads alone, rather than reciting to an audience. At some point in any poetry student’s education one will attempt to memorize a poem, and possibly recite it to someone else.

This Guided Poetry Tour offers some suggestions for poems that are well-suited to memorization and recitation. Whether you’re memorizing a poem for a class assignment, to perform at a forensics meet, theatrical performance, or just for your own edification, this guide is meant only to be a starting point. For tips on how to memorize or recite a poem, see the “Related Articles” section at the end of this guide.


The Value of Memorizing Poems

Chances are that you have already memorized thousands of lines of verse in the form of song lyrics. How did you learn the lyrics to all of those songs? It wasn’t arduous work or a chore - you simply listened to songs you liked over and over again until you almost couldn’t help but have the song memorized. Heck, you probably know the instrumental solos from thousands of songs as well, note-for-note.

Memorizing poetry isn’t much different. You start with a poem you like, recite it to yourself over and over, and you get to know the poem.

One of the best aspects of learning a poem by heart is that you get to take a poem inside of yourself. It becomes a part of you. That sounds touchy-feely, but it’s true. When you memorize a poem it is no longer just a poem, but your poem. It’s in your head, and you can call it up from memory as you would any other experience.

Also, memorizing a poem is a great way to truly get to understand the poem, and consider every phrase, line, and word. You can practice varying the sounds, adding pauses and emphasis in different spots to try to find the most accurate voice for the poem. In a way, you never really know a poem until you’ve memorized it. Once you know it inside-and-out, you’ll be able to recite it (to others or yourself), and like a jazz musician improvise inside the poem’s boundaries - adding your own words, re-wording a section of the poem, etc., to make it your own.

Suggested Poems for Memorization

Below I’ve included a list of poems that are well-suited for memorization. I know about two-thirds of these myself (feel free to quiz me should we ever meet) and plan to learn the rest. All are poems that anyone who wants to be considered “well read” should know. I’ve included a few recent poems by contemporary poets if you’re interested in reciting a poem that others will not be likely to know.

The poems are divided into categories by relative length. Don’t think that short poems are easier to memorize, though - often somewhat longer poems are easier to learn (and more impressive to recite). It sounds strange, but experience (plus statistics and extensive laboratory results) prove that it’s true.

Starter Memorization Poems: Short and Sweet

It’s handy to have a repertoire of poems you can learn within an hour and recite in only a minute or two. The world is growing ever faster-paced, and people’s attention spans are shrinking, so your best received poems may be brief by necessity. Plus, if you’ve never memorized a poem learning a short poem can be a confidence booster.

  • Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

    Frost’s poem is a good starter due to its simple diction and regular rhyme and meter. Also, the last two lines are the same, which makes for one less line to memorize.

  • For Whom The Bell Tolls” by John Donne

    This meditation on death may not seem like a poem that would go over well with an audience, but it is brief and the opening and closing lines should be recognizable by even those who are not familiar with poetry.

  • Musée des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden

    I’ve always loved to recite “Musée des Beaux Arts” because there is a lot of variation in the rhythm of the poem - parts of it seem fast, other parts are slower, and without affectation - the natural rhythm of the lines tends to make the rhythm ebb and flow like a tide. Auden’s meditation on success and failure, on art and its ability to reach for the sun, is a great poem to have in your mental portfolio of memorized verse.

  • Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” by W. H. Auden

    Auden’s work is so well-crafted that it sounds casual and easy, like it was just dashed off. This is a love poem but it’s hardly idealistic - it’s a sober and human examination of love and what it means to love someone despite having other not-so-happy feelings about them. To love someone deeply is to accept their humanity, flaws and scars included. The result is even more romantic than if you idealized them.

  • Tears, Idle Tears” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

    This really has nothing to do with the poem but I can’t help but smile at the image of “half-awakened birds” as I always imagine little birds blinking their eyes, adjusting to the light, being sleepy and needing a cup of coffee while they fetch a bit of paper to read during breakfast. The rest of the poem isn’t as delightful as that image, but it is a fairly sombre poem that is suitable for reciting at funerals.

  • The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens

    This brief existential poem by Wallace Stevens is rich with imagery that is deeper than a mere drift of snow. When you know this one by heart, you’ll be able to feel the nothing that resonates at the end of the poem. Nothing is something.

  • Palimpsest” by Jared Carter

    Villanelles are a form of verse where two lines are repeated throughout the poem in regular intervals. I’m not sure whether this makes them easier or more difficult to learn, but the result when recited is entrancing, and this contemporary villanelle from Jared Carter is one of the very best.

  • Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

    You may think that a poem comprised mostly of nonsense words would be difficult to learn, but Carroll has structured this poem using the sounds of words to convey information. It’s amazing how once you get to know the poem it makes complete sense to you, even if you can’t explain what a particular word means. It’s all in the syntax and context. This one is a delight to recite to children, also, who can appreciate both the whimsical nature of nonsense and be enchanted by the rhythm of the poem.

  • The Owl And The Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear

    This is another poem often recited to children. Lear’s nonsense poem has always meant a lot to me for reasons I dare not try to comprehend.

  • Iowa & Other Accidents” by Kate Northrop

    As one of my favourite poems of the past decade, “Iowa & Other Accidents” has a hypnotic effect as reader and speaker converge to witness an accident suspended in time, forever about to happen. It’s breathlessly simple, but the details of the road that afternoon make the poem specific to a time and place while elevated above that time and place. Brilliant.

  • Song To Celia (II)” by Ben Jonson

    While the diction of this poem may seem highfalutin and old-fashioned to a contemporary audience, this is a beautiful love poem that, like a fine wine, gets better with time.

  • Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

    A man stands alone at a window looking off across the sea while he addresses his love on the ambiguities of battle and the lush sound of the waves drawing back the pebbles on the shore. I like to recite this one sotto voce as if it were late and I was trying not to wake the servants.

Sonnets: 14 Quick Lines of Rhythm and Rhyme

While sonnets aren’t the sine qua non of a poetry reciter’s arsenal, they’re perfect for a brief recitation due to their fixed length (generally fourteen lines), repetitive rhyme schemes, and rhythm.

  • Sonnet 055: Not Marble, Nor The Gilded Monuments” by William Shakespeare

    Besides having the cachet of having been written by Shakespeare, this sonnet also is one of the gutsiest. The speaker is saying that since I’m writing this poem about you, people will remember you for eternity (and thus, the poet will also be remembered). Of course, he’s right! We do remember the poet and his poetry, and people will remember your recitation of this poem.

  • Leda And The Swan” by William Butler Yeats

    Yeats examines the shock and violence in the mythological tale of Zeus’s rape of Leda as he took the form of a swan and squired mankind. The final lines wonder not what Zeus took from Leda, but what she took from him. It’s a harsh tale, but a powerful poem that ruminates on the nature of man (and woman) and humanity’s relationship with its creator.

  • Sonnet 16: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” by John Milton

    This poem is heartbreaking, especially if you consider that Milton was going blind when he wrote it. Deconstructionists will never appreciate this aspect of the poem because they believe that nothing should matter outside of the text. But knowledge that the poet was going blind informs our reading of this poem in a way we couldn’t understand otherwise.

  • Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    This poem comes to us third- or fourth-hand (or perhaps even more than that) - the poet is writing from the point of view of a speaker who is talking to a traveller who is recounting what is written on a pedestal by a sculptor who carved a message from a long-dead king. Like the sonnet by Shakespeare above, this poem examines how words stretch through time, but in this case, Ozymandias’s mighty works have fallen to dust, whereas Shakespeare’s are as fresh as the day he wrote them. There’s a valuable lesson about poetry to learn here: no things but in ideas, for things will not last, but words and ideas will carry on.

  • The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth

    Words in a poem that have an accent where an accent is usually not applied usually suggests an extra syllable sound to be added to the poem at that point, as in “wreathèd” (not wreath’d, but wreath-ed). The reason for this addition is to flesh-out the meter. Also, if you recite this one in front of children they will giggle at the word “bosom.” I say this with experience, folks.

  • Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne

    Perhaps this list is revealing a personal taste for poems about death, but this is one of the strongest and most forthright poems about death ever written. It’s telling Death to take a hike, suggesting that thanks to our eternal life Death himself (you know, the guy with the big black hood and scythe) will die.

  • From Earth To Heaven” by Sir Philip Sidney

    This poem is another dealing with death and the afterlife. It is hopeful but cautious - the speaker knows that from the moment we are born we begin to die, and that life is a struggle towards Heaven, but the clouds may not always break, and the light may not always shine. It’s a metaphor for the hard work it takes to walk the straight and narrow path.

  • Unfortunate” by Rupert Brooke

    What’s unfortunate is that this poem isn’t that well known. Brooke died young in the first World War, and left behind only a small number of poems. I like to think that the “she” in the poem is Grace - a personification of God’s forgiveness. Regardless of your belief in the afterlife, the thought of a warm and caring woman who will not care about my shortcomings and accept me with open arms no matter what is comforting.

Longer Poems: Largess to Impress

Longer poems are not only more impressive to an audience, but are in many ways easier to learn than short poems because their narrative or lyrical arc is longer. It’s like if you’re trying to catch a ball - it’s easier to catch if it’s thrown from a shallower arc from a great distance, and far more difficult if thrown almost straight up in the air.

  • Adam’s Curse” by William Butler Yeats

    “Adam’s Curse” is my favourite poem of all to recite. The voice, the imagery, the balance of tenderness and hardness, is perfect. The beautiful mild woman and the speaker engage in a dance of words. The man’s romantic overtures and the woman, who is more world-weary, less romantic and idealistic than the speaker, understands that we must labour to be beautiful.

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot

    Prufrock was the first poem that I had ever purposefully memorized (some others I’d learned just because I’d read them or heard them numerous times). It’s a decent length, is semi-narrative, and audiences seem to like it. Prufrock is a loveable underdog, and mermaids never sing to people like him.

  • Ode To A Nightingale” by John Keats

    I consider Keats’s “Nightingale” to be one of the most perfect poems ever written. The thoughts that pre-occupy the speaker are the nature of reality, the link between joy and pain, intensity of feeling versus numbness, life and death, mortality and immortality, and the perceived ideal versus perceived actuality. Coupled with some of the most lush and textured sounds in the history of lyric poetry you have a poem that demands oral recitation.

  • The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

    Narrative poems tend to be well-suited for memorization and recitation because they tell a story, and storytelling is an ancient human tradition. Poe’s “The Raven” is one of the most famous narrative poems in Western literature, and one which any mental anthology should not be without. It’s long, but not too long, and makes for great entertainment around Halloween.

  • The Cremation Of Sam McGee” by Robert Service

    This is one of the weirdest poems in this Tour, and yet it too is a commonly recited poem. Its ballade meter makes it sound funnier than it is, and this one really lends itself to overly exaggerated emphasis and gesticulations. It’s a good performance piece for someone with a broad personality.

  • My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning

    Ah yes, one of the most taught poems in schools everywhere. Since the poem is dramatic it’s great for performance, even as a monologue piece for acting students. Just try not to gesture to the wall when you recite the first line…

  • If” by Rudyard Kipling

    This is the closest thing to an inspirational poem I can think of. A man is talking to his son about what it means to be a man. It’s a difficult poem to pull off without sounding cheesy, but Kipling manages to keep the theme fresh.

  • The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    Our final suggestion for poems to memorize is the ever-entertaining and lengthy “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The poem is a bizarre and satirical moral narrative, where the moral of the story teaches you not to do something that no one would ever do. It’s the kind of poem that is improved due to its length, because it builds and builds on itself.

Ahem. There was mention of profit…

Oh yeah. That’s just an expression. The only profit you’ll get is your own enjoyment (and that of other people if you recite the poem to them) and a far richer understanding of the poem than you ever would have gained had you not learned it by heart.

For tips on how to memorize or recite a poem, see these related articles:

About the Tour Guide

Jough Dempsey is a poet & critic and the webmaster of Poetry X, an online poetry resource for those looking for poems to memorize and recite for fun, forensics meets, and profit. In his spare time he enjoys memorizing the digits of Pi to forty thousand decimal places.

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