[Milton-L] Memorization

Nancy Charlton n.charlton at comcast.net
Mon Feb 23 08:33:38 EST 2004

I have enjoyed reading different ones' vivid memories of memorizing, and 
fain would add a couple of my own. (I'm campaigning to bring fain, lest, 
sans, and anent back into active use because they are so handy.)

Last fall at a family reunion, my brother and brother-in-law were having a 
great time one-upping each other in twitting my sister concerning a wine 
purchase she had made that proved to be a dud. It got into a red vs white 
debate. Several aperitifs later, as we started dinner, my bro-in-law raised 
his glass, looked at me, and said, "Hey Nancy......The king sat in 
Dumferlin town," and I joined in: "/ Drinking the blude red wine/ Oh quhere 
shal I get good sailor/ To sail this schip of mine?"  He continued, in 
perfect Scots: "Then up and spak and eldern knicht/ Sat at the king's richt 
kne/ Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor/ That sails vpon the se."
Neither of us quite remembered what came next, and the others were looking 
nonplussed, so we went on with dinner. When I got home, I took out my 
Childe ballads and reread Sir Patrick several times, declaiming it to the 
cat. It was easy to memorize, since it was associated with a delightful 
moment. I've since recited it a few times, and even if I have to explain 
about the "braid letter" and the "cork-heild schoon" it is a great story 
and lets me do a bit of closet drama.

My high school teacher for senior English was two years away from retiring 
and was ailing, so she didn't take our class on her famed field trip to the 
cemetery to look for epitaphs gleaned from the English poets. She did, 
however, require us each to memorize ten couplets of Alexander Pope, drawn 
from a list she had picked out carefully to exclude any references to God 
yet to be helpful sententia for moral instruction. She had early on stated 
that she wouldn't allow any discussion of religion or politics. We all 
thought, add sex and what's left? Came the day to go round the room with 
our couplets, and when it came my turn I got very dramatic. I forget now 
which ones I chose, but some of my classmates laughed. The teacher said 
"Don't laugh, she's trying to express the meaning." I found much later, 
after having studied PL and more of Pope, that I had missed a chance for a 
witty riposte:

         Laugh where we must, be candid where we can,
         But vindicate the ways of God to man.

The religion-and-politics exclusion pretty much ruled out Milton in that 
class, but I'm sure we did L'Allegro and Il Penseroso; they're pretty safe. 
And I know we did Macbeth, because she had us memorize 'Tomorrow and 
tomorrow and tomorrow'. Years later I realized she may have thought this a 
gloss on her own life, and that in the r-&-p prohibition she was playing it 
safe until retirement. Yet somewhere along the line I memorized "I cannot 
praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue...".

I find over the years that I remember as opposed to memorize, lingering 
over passages that hit me hard, thinking about their meaning(s), and/or 
delighting in the rhythms and images. Then, thinking of the PL marathon I 
took part in last spring, I would say that speaking and hearing that very 
auditory and visual poem should be integral to teaching it. Do whatever is 
necessary to get past the mythology, the Dagwood-sandwich syntax, the 
structure--but help the class experience its dramatic power. This will be 
remembered long after critical analysis is forgot.

Nancy Charlton

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