[Milton-L] memorization

Gardner Campbell gcampbel at mwc.edu
Wed Feb 25 15:17:01 EST 2004

I agree that James's continuing skepticism is of great value, and I'm
grateful for it. 

A postscript to Greg's musical analogy:

At our rehearsal last Monday, the Chamber Chorale of Fredericksburg was
singing through Orlando Gibbons' "The Silver Swan," a fairly common
madrigal whose difficulties are subtle but considerable: the alternation
of polyphony and homophony, the interesting bits of word-painting, the
variations in setting from stanza to stanza, and not least the challenge
of getting the basses to be tender instead of declamatory on their high
notes (I say this as a bass and a guilty party). This is a good choir,
and we were singing the notes very well indeed, but we were not making
music and we were far from doing justice to the piece. Our director told
us so, and led us through a short, cumulative exercise in memorizing the
madrigal. Then we put our books down and sang. The difference was
clearly audible, and wonderful. Most of the expressiveness we had
struggled with simply emerged from our attending to ourselves as an
ensemble instead of attending to the private experience of following the
bouncing ball in our scores.

The analogy is imperfect, but the point is this: the music didn't emerge
until we belonged to it, and we didn't belong to it until we had it

Gardner Campbell (who has for all his career required his students to
memorize and recite for him fourteen consecutive lines of verse--their
choice--in each of his literature courses)
Mary Washington College

>>> Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu 02/25/04 01:58PM >>>
Though I sense a growing exasperation on the part of some, James
continuing skepticism regarding memorization/recitation as an
element of a literature course continues to be useful to me as a prompt
articulate the rationale for something I deeply believe is valuable, but
whose value I have never been called on to defend at length.

Before Captain Harper anticipated me, I was preparing to object to the
characterization of such exercizes as "busywork"; and I do object, on
precisely the grounds he articulates.   I'd like to go a stage further
address what I understand to be Professor Fleming's real objection to
activity, that it is too "easy."  I believe I know what he means.  When
think about it, I guess I would agree that the process of committing
to memory is not especially "difficult," conceptually speaking, not as
challenging to my brain as reading Gadamer, say.   It's mostly a process
running over the lines again and again until they stick.

Nevertheless,  I'm in complete agreement with the individuals who have
noted that *reciting* the poems effectively requires as much exercize of
one's (higher level) interpretive skills as any other form of
interpretation.  (Such exercizes used to be called "oral
didn't they?)  Since the kind of literary activity that Professor
has been advocating in contrast to memorization/recitation is precisely
interpretation, I would hope that his esteem for that activity might be
grounds for his coming to appreciate at least the recitation part of
memorization/recitation exercizes.

What to do with the fact that the memorization part is not that
challenging?  I guess I'm not that concerned.  If it's valuable and just
happens to be easy, so be it.  I'm content to have students do the
activities I believe are valuable, not only those that I believe they'll
find difficult.  A lot of them go into such exercizes at least thinking
will be difficult, and I believe it probably is a little bit
at least insofar as it calls on them to use a cognitive ability, memory,
that not much of their education seems to tax very heavily.  However
or easy it might be, at least it's something relatively new that they're
doing with their minds (Incidentally, some chemists memorize the

But the thing I most wanted to respond to was Professor Fleming's claim
(from two posts back) that "the business of our discipline is
."  and his earlier stress on knowledge.  I feel like having a poem
memorized does represent *knowing* that poem; indeed, I regard it as the
most complete form of knowing I can achieve;  I know the poem.  To use
analogy to music that has already come up, we regard a musician as
knowing a piece when he or she can perform it without the sheet music.
It's true that I can also know interpretations that have been ascribed
the poem.  But since Professor Fleming's focus is on knowlege, I don't
understand why knowing *the thing itself*--the sequence of words that
up the poem--wouldn't constitute a valuable form of knowledge in our

Greg Machacek
Marist College

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