[Milton-L] Pepys and Recitativo, a response to James Fleming

Feisal Mohamed feisalm at hotmail.com
Thu Feb 26 00:29:00 EST 2004

I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with James Fleming's contributions to
this thread.

If I can share some autobiography, I have found this dialogue interesting
because one of the reasons I embraced English and fled Biology as an
undergraduate was to avoid rote memorization.  There is a great deal in that
discipline that one is simply expected to memorize in freshman and sophomore
courses--defining characteristics of invertebrate classes, hormones of the
pituitary and their feedback mechanisms, the molecular structure of all
twenty-two naturally-occurring amino acids.  "Don't worry," my classmates
and I would often say to one another while cramming for an exam, "you have
to memorize it, not understand it."  There was, it turned out, some truth to
that bit of undergraduate intellectual laziness: one could be entirely
successful in such courses without having a clear conceptual grasp of any of
the material.

This is an extreme example, but it informs my sense in literary study that
memorization breeds a sham familiarity with a text.  It is possible--even
likely, in an undergraduate classroom--that one memorize and recite a
passage without learning a jot about its sound or its sense.

I enjoyed the example from Pepys that Professor Rudrum provided (see below).
It is worth noting, however, that Pepys's insight came while he was
_listening_ to Italian well performed, not while he was making his own
attempt at "proper accent."  If undergraduates come as far as Pepys
did--recognizing in a "foreign" language that the sense, and excellence, of
poetry comes fully to life in its "native" sound--and are able to speak
intelligently about the relationship between sound and meaning, then this
instructor is more than pleased.  (Beckett and friends may have enjoyed
recititavio enough fully to enter into the spirit of it, but who among us
has a classroom of Becketts?)

Given that the number of assignments one can give in a term is limited, and
that one must cut significantly into lecture time to allow for a class of 30
to engage in recitation, I simply do not see memorization as the most
productive exercise one can give.  If learning about the sound of poetry is
the goal, why not encourage discussion in this avenue?  If "possessing" a
work is the object, does this not also happen when one engages in the
consideration and reconsideration necessary to thoughtful analysis?  Nothing
that has been offered so far has convinced me that memorization is the best
means to the ends that have been advertised in its defence.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Alan Rudrum" <rudrum at sfu.ca>
To: <milton-l at koko.richmond.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 11:07 AM
Subject: [Milton-L] Pepys and Recitativo, a response to James Fleming

> Here is a passage from Pepys which I read recently, and which delighted me
> so much by its intelligence that I read it to my wife, currently
> herself at the Huntington, on long-distance phone:
> (1)  Pepys's Diary, Feb 12, 1667.
> Pepys hears some Italian music in the company of Tom Killigrew, Sir Rob.
> Murray, and the Italian Seignor Baptista - "who hath composed a play in
> Italian for the Opera which T. Killigrew doth intend to have up; and here
> he did sing one of the acts.  Himself is the poet as well as the Musician,
> which is very much; and did sing the whole from the words without any
> Musique pricked, and played all along upon a Harpsicon most admirably; and
> the composition most excellent.  The words I did not understand, and so
> know not how they are fitted; but believe very well, and in all the
> Recitativo very fine.  But I perceive there is a proper accent in every
> country's discourse, and that doth reach in their settings of notes to
> words, which therefore cannot be natural to anybody else but them; so that
> I am not so much smitten with it as it may be I should be if I were
> acquainted with their accent....T. Killigrew and Sir R. Murray, who
> understood the words, did say was excellent."
> (2) I am currently making an attempt to learn German and am enrolled in a
> conversation class.  Assignment for the second week was show and tell.  I
> took along photocopies from a book of German literature with facing-page
> translations, and gave one to each class-member.   This was my
> "showing."  My "telling" was to stand, fix my eye on the teacher, and
> recite two poems.   I found two advantages in this: one was that, in spite
> of a generally poor visual memory, I was able to visualize the
> capitalization of the nouns and, in the case of one poem, the alternation
> of long and short lines; another was that I was able to vocalize the music
> of the poem ("there is a proper accent in every country's discourse, and
> that doth reach in their settings of notes to words" and there is also a
> proper accent in their setting of words to metre).    Another  exercise is
> to listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Der Winterreise, and other
> Schubert lieder.
> Incidentally, Der Winterreise was a favourite of Samuel Beckett; and I am
> reminded that Beckett's evenings with one of his painter friends often
> included recitation, to each other, and together, of favourite poems; he
> and his friend would stand while saying poems by which they were
> moved.
> I believe that early modern prose and verse are sufficiently remote from
> for there to be a difficulty similar to that recorded by Pepys; so I do
> indeed believe that learning to vocalize both verse and prose accurately
> an essential part of literary studies.   Poetry is, as James Fleming
> suggests, the making of meaning, and hearing it is an essential step to
> understanding that meaning.  I headed an earlier post, protesting that
> Milton could not possibly have written a passage ascribed to him, "On the
> education of the ear."    If I had entered the great debate about PL 9:702
> ("Your fear itself of death removes the fear") I might have given it the
> same heading: if you can follow the syntax from "Queen of this universe"
> (684) and then hear where the caesura falls in line 702 (after "itself")
> the meaning is clear enough.
> Finally, Frank Kermode, toward the end of his teaching career, came to the
> conclusion that "creative writing" ought to be an integral part of a
> literature course, - not as creative writing may be generally taught, but
> in order for students to learn the difficulties of various forms and
> (sonnet, blank verse and so on).  He thought, and I think rightly, that
> being aware of the difficulties they would be able to see how in a good
> poem they had been overcome.  Try writing ten lines of octosyllabics and
> then look at some Marvell!
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