[Milton-L] memorizing: passages

Beverley Sherry bsherry at mail.usyd.edu.au
Tue Feb 24 10:56:04 EST 2004

You are not implying, are you, that "what a poem means" excludes its
auditory effects and (especially with a poem like Paradise Lost) its
orality?  As Eric LeMay points out, "That Paradise Lost, composed by the
then blind Milton, must be read aloud to be understood and appreciated is a
truth well-established among Miltonists" (Milton Quarterly 37 [2003]:
97)--students can discover this for themselves by reading aloud.
Undoubtedly memorizing can be beneficial too, though I guess not essential.

Beverley Sherry

----- Original Message -----
From: <jfleming at sfu.ca>
To: <milton-l at koko.richmond.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 9:21 AM
Subject: [Milton-L] memorizing: passages

> Dear Alan and all,
> I don't doubt that memorizing passages is a useful and pleasant activity.
I do doubt that it is the kind of useful and pleasant activity that
constitutes literary study.
> I take it that we, as teachers and critics, want primarily to foster an
encounter with meaning. (By all means, let us ask what that means.) I do not
see how copying the textual artifact -- whether scribally, vocally, or
mnemonically -- does much to facilitate that encounter. I am not saying that
copying does _nothing_. I certainly feel that I have come to understand
"When I Consider," for example,  better since memorizing it; and I often
copy long citations of verse into my work manually, rather than by database
paste-in, because I think I gain familiarity with the verse by keyboarding
it. But two points seem salient here. One: I do not think that my copying or
memorizing the text constitutes studying it. I do not even think that it
constitutes a prerequisite to studying. (After all, I have a book, or
perhaps a database, to remember the poem for me.) Rather, I think that my
copying is something that occurs in the course of an encounter with the text
that has long since ident!
>  ified meaning as its goal. In other words, copying follows from, and is
prompted by, a developing understanding. It does not precede or produce the
development of understanding. Two: whatever I gain from the copying or
memorization of "When I Consider" is surely far less significant, and far
less identifiable, and far less worthy of class time (of which there is
never enough) than what I gain from trying to determine what and how the
poem means. The latter activity leads to, and is supported by, an
investigation of (i.a.) Reformation theology, scriptural intertext, and
sonnet form. The former activity leads -- where? to the poem itself? But
given that the poem is where we started, this seems to me like jumping in
> Now, as I suggested earlier, this is just the sort of thing that natural
scientists think goes on in English class: reciting beautiful poetry, as
cultural ornament rather than as occasion for knowledge. Alan points out
that the same could be said for the preconceptions of the culture at
large -- but that is because, I think, the culture has an overwhelmingly
scientific epistemology. In any case, Greg Machecek objects that scientific
standards are irrelevant to literary study. I agree. But my point is
precisely that _the pedagogy of belles-lettres, in which
memorization/locution surely belongs, conforms completely to scientific
standards._ It conforms to the scientifistic idea of the arts as
non-science, and therefore as divorced from any serious claim to knowledge.
To do memorization because "that's what we do" is not to assert the position
of literary study among the discipines. It is, rather, to accept the place
of no-place, defined by intellectual easiness and epistemolog!
>  ical emptiness.
> Or am I completely wrong?
> J
> Dr. James Dougal Fleming,
> Assistant Professor of English,
> Simon Fraser University,
> (604) 291-4713
> Laissez parler les faits.
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