[Milton-L] Memorized poetry

Arlene M Stiebel amstiebel at verizon.net
Sat Jun 16 11:14:57 EDT 2012

When I was in Bergenfield High School, my Junior year history teacher was a gentleman named William Claxton, who believed in memorization.  He had us learn, chronologically, the names of all the US Presidents and Supreme Court Chief Justices, alphabetically all the counties of the state of New Jersey, and various other lists he deemed important. To this day, I can still easily recite them.

Mr. Claxton also had a unique form of classroom discipline. He was very strict about conduct and deportment, and believed that forming "character" was a  legitimate goal of public education. So, whenever anyone misbehaved in class, he would give them the assignment of learning two lines from his favorite poem, A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The offending pupil had overnight to learn them, and was required to stand in front of the room at the beginning of class and recite those lines the next day.

Quite a few students got through a lot of the poem, as there were the usual classroom troublemakers and clowns among us, plus some unruly teenagers who delighted in mischief. Mr. Claxton never seemed fazed by what he considered misbehavior -- he was a very good and very stern teacher. We learned our American History.

I don't think anyone was ever made to learn the whole poem.  But the assignments were cumulative, and with each new offense the perpetrator had to add two lines from their previous stopping point and then recite it all.  As a result, the first few stanzas of A Psalm of Life were so often repeated  over the course of the year in front of that classroom that even those of us who never had such an assignment grew to know them by heart.

Every once in a while, Mr. Claxton himself, who could recite many things, would speak the whole poem for us, and express his conviction that Longfellow's message was worth heeding. Our teacher was a very knowledgeable historian, a wonderful person, an excellent instructor, and one of life's greatest enthusiasts. 

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
Learn to labor and to wait. 

--  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sent from my iPhone

On Jun 14, 2012, at 1:40 PM, "Duran, Angelica A" <duran0 at purdue.edu> wrote:

> Dear scholars,
> I am interested in finding out about the experiences you have had with
> either assigning or being assigned to memorize early modern British poetry,
> Milton or other. 
> I would appreciate it if you could respond off-list to any or all of these
> questions:
> € What specific pomes did you memorize / do you assign?
> * were you given / do you give any written instructions in coordination with
> the assignment?
> € were you given / do you give a grading rubric?
> € was / is the assignment early or late in the term, or does it not matter
> for you?
> € how did / does delivery of the recitation work? In class, in your office,
> at a public event?
> € any neat or funny anecdotes?
> I memorized poetry in high school and college, then have elected to memorize
> for my graduate qualifying exams and have memorized a 14-21 line snippet
> nearly every semester since becoming a faculty member 12 years ago. I assign
> memorization and recitation, usually with first recitations in class and
> final recitations at a low-key campus, public events. I'm considering
> extending the assignment to my graduate courses.
> Many, thanks.
> Adios,
> Angelica Duran
> Associate Professor, English and Comparative Literature
> Director, Religious Studies Program
> Purdue University
> 500 Oval Drive / Heavilon Hall
> West Lafayette, Indiana 47907
> U.S.A.
> <duran0 at purdue.edu>
> <http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/directory/index.cfm?personid=80>
> <http://www.cla.purdue.edu/religious-studies/>
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