Want to keep your brain cells fit? Learn a poem (bit by bit)

Want to keep your brain cells fit? New tome challenges readers to memorise hundreds of poems ‘bit by bit’ to improve your memory

  • Gyles Brandreth challenges readers to learn poems off by heart in a new tome 
  • Dancing By The Light Of The Moon, is aimed at keeping dementia at bay
  • Features nonsense verses, tonguetwisters, puzzles, puns and literary games 
  • He claims children who learn poetry do better academically and sleep better 



by Gyles Brandreth (Michael Joseph £14.99, 464 pp) 

What a piece of work is Gyles Brandreth, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and how like an irrepressible Butlin’s Redcoat or jolly tambourine-banging clergyman, insisting that we absolutely must ‘keep those synapses happy!’ and ‘keep that hippocampus happy!’

The human brain, he tells us, is the size of a cantaloupe melon, has the texture of mozzarella and contains 86 billion neurons. To keep it trim, we should cram it with poetry.

The idea behind Dancing By The Light Of The Moon, therefore, is that if people set themselves the task of learning classic verse off by heart, the effect will be better than drink, sex or drugs, and it will keep dementia at bay, too.

Gyles Brandreth challenges readers to learn hundreds of poems off by heart by practicing a few lines a day (file image)

‘It’s good to stretch your mind,’ says Brandreth, and ‘the extraordinary brain-boosting, heart-lifting way in which poetry can change your life’ is akin to bracing physical jerks.

Take The Owl And The Pussycat. Brandreth wants us to be declaiming the stuff unabashedly in public at every opportunity, marching along the street, chin up, chest out, marking the end of a line by turning sharply to the left, then to the right. If I tried that here in Hastings, I’d fall in the sea, beautiful pea-green boat or no beautiful pea-green boat.

Brandreth himself likes travelling on the Tube to get Shakespearean sonnets to sink in. He would go from Wimbledon to Queen’s Park, the stations forming mnemonics, the rattle of the carriage fitting the rhythmical beat.

‘Learn one line at a time,’ he counsels, ‘and learn two lines in a day. Repeat tomorrow what you learnt today. Do as much of it as possible out loud.’

The country is going to be full of everyone telling complete strangers: ‘O lovely Pussy, O Pussy my love! / What a beautiful Pussy you are!’ Fights may break out, as well as unusual friendships formed.

Brandreth is impressed by feats of memory. Actor Alec McCowen learnt St Mark’s Gospel over 16 months, three verses each morning. He then made a one-man show out of the material, performing it at the White House. A professor in Connecticut committed the 10,565 lines of Paradise Lost to memory — a project that took nine years and which makes you wonder about professors in Connecticut.

It’s rather daunting to be told that Nicholas Parsons, 96, ‘recites poem after poem after poem’ and doesn’t hesitate or deviate once. I’m aware that ‘the brain is a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it’, but surely there are limits.

Dancing By the Light Of The Moon features nonsense verses, tongue-twisters, puzzles, puns and literary games (file image)

I think I prefer Donald Sinden’s warm-up routine, which was simply to stand before his dressing-room mirror and chant: ‘Hip bath, hip bath / Lavatory, lavatory / Bidet, bidet / Douche!’

Nevertheless, Brandreth wants us to learn the poems he has assembled in this handsome volume so that we become ‘a walking, talking anthology of versified wonder, wit and wisdom’.

He is evidently fond of old-fashioned, rousing patriotic poetry — the works familiar to Edwardian schoolboys, but lost from view today: Stevenson, Henley, Newbolt, Masefield and Rupert Brooke. No one will have heard ‘the boy stood on the burning deck’ in a century. ‘It was Christmas Day in the workhouse’ is here, in Ronnie Barker’s parody version.

Number of months before birth a foetus begins to develop memories 

Daring the censure of the politically correct brigade, Brandreth is brave to stand up for Kipling’s Gunga Din.

He also likes nonsense verse, tongue-twisters, puzzles, puns and literary games. Edward Lear’s Pobble and Jumblies are favourites, as is Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

He has an appreciation for A. A. Milne (‘They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace / Christopher Robin went down with Alice’), and he is amused by whimsy, for example Flanders and Swann’s ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud’.

When it comes to Shakespeare, Brandreth boils down several centuries of literary criticism to say: ‘It’s the basic da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM that makes much of [the Bard] surprisingly easy to learn.’

Gyles claims children who learn poetry off by heart perform better academically, sleep better and concentrate better (file image) 

At the opposite extreme is Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘A tough one to learn and perform, but do both and you will feel good.’

There’s Brandreth’s nub: feeling good. The ‘power and importance of poetry’, he insists, is that overcoming the struggle and challenge of absorbing reams of it reaps dividends, psychologically and spiritually. ‘If you are conscious of the journey you are taking, wherever you are it will help you know where you are going next.’

I can’t work out if this is helpful advice — it’s a bit mystical. But Brandreth is keen on spelling out big messages.

Learning poetry by heart as a child ‘can improve your ability to succeed at school, in exams, in interviews, in life,’ he asserts.

Children who learn poetry by heart ‘do better academically, concentrate more effectively, sleep better, and do better professionally in later life,’ he repeats. Perhaps the first task, therefore, will be to turn off the telly and confiscate mobile phones.

DANCING BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON by Gyles Brandreth (Michael Joseph £14.99, 464 pp)

As to having access to the poems themselves — simply buy or steal this book, with its comprehensive selections.

Indeed, to instil a love of literature, a copy of Dancing By The Light Of The Moon ought to find its way into every home in the land.

I was pleased to see that balancing out Christopher Robin and Runcible Cats are Ted Hughes’ demonic hawk, the morbidity of A. E. Housman and Seamus Heaney’s description of a decaying, putrefying blackberry harvest: ‘All the lovely canfuls smelt of rot / Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’ Wonderful. What tickled me most, however, was discovering little snippets about Brandreth himself, hidden away in the footnotes.

He does the dulcet voiceovers for Tena Flex Plus Supersoft Incontinence Pads. He hosts the Annual British Funeral Directors’ Awards Ceremony. He was at school with the children of Robert Graves.

His wife shares a birthday with Pam Ayres. He gave a reading at a carol service when T. S. Eliot was in the congregation.

He sat next to Roald Dahl on a train and Jilly Cooper on a bus. His pal Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, is the great-great granddaughter of Alec Shand, who was engaged to Constance Lloyd and went on to marry Oscar Wilde.

That’s the sort of thing I want to be told. Only one thing worried me. If ‘the shower is an ace place for learning poetry by heart’, won’t the pages get wet?    

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