[Milton-L] Late entry -- memorizing poetry

Nancy Charlton nbcharlton at comcast.net
Wed Jun 27 01:17:24 EDT 2012

Though I came to this thread a tad late, it evoked memories that 
I'd like to share.

I grew up hearing poetry recited and sung.  Things like A.A. 
Milne's /When We Were Very Young/, my mom dancing around singing 
"James James Morrison Morrison," "The King Asked the Queen" and 
the like.  Sometimes even now when walking I declaim, not out 
loud, "Bears! Just watch me walking in all of the squares!"

But this was spontaneous: after you hear something and sing it a 
few times you remember it, and was quite outside school or any 
formal structure.  Memorization in those days was memorizing 
music, and I find that much harder than memorizing poetry. 
Instead, I find I remember, I remember lines and passages that 
thrill me.

Through early years I did memorize and recite, but the earliest 
performance was around 6th grade. I had to do James Whitcomb 
Riley's poem that starts "When he frost is on the pumpkin, and 
the fodder's in the shock" for an assembly.  I suppose there were 
others, but the one that stands our was memorizing and reciting 
William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl."  This came back to me a 
few months ago when I observed a straggler from a big flock of 
geese fly over, following the flock's undeviating path.  A 
printout of the poem is now taped to my refrigerator.

My French and Latin teachers also required some memorizing, and 
it didn't hurt us any to know aphoisms such as "Plus ca change, 
plus c'est le meme chose" and "Haec olim memenisse juvabit."

But the big memorizing came in Miss Mary Agnes Perry's senior 
English, who piously proclaimed early on that we would not 
discuss religion or politics.  That let out Milton and the Bible, 
and I remember sitting in my seat gritting my teeth and saying 
/sotto voce/ 'Add sex, and what is there left?' She had us 
memorize snippets from Chaucer and Shakespeare, particularly "My 
way of life has fallen into the sere and yellow leaf" and other 
dreary portions of Macbeth, water-skiing over the Porter and the 
Weird Sisters.

But the big memorizing took place a few weeks later when we came 
to the 18th century.  We studied Alexander Pope, the /Essay on 
Man/ and the /Essay on Criticism/.  Miss Perry selected 15 or so 
heroic couplets from each, and we were to memorize and recite our 
choice of five. Most of us just got up and rattled them off.  My 
turn came 45 minutes into the hour and all of us were bored 
stiff, so I decided to liven things up.  I don't recall what my 
five were, but I delivered them with drama and verve, and after 
the 3rd or 4th everyone started to laugh. Miss Perry shushed 
them, saying something like "Now listen! She's trying to give 
these some expression."  This set them off all the more.  I have 
always regretted that the choices didn't include "Laugh where we 
must, be candid where we can/ But vindicate the ways of God to 
man" I coulda had the last laugh!

But that couldn't have been on the list. After all, it not only 
mentions G-d but also presupposes reading Paradise Lost.  I think 
we did read L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and may have even 
memorized parts, but no PL. I see now what Miss Perry was trying 
to do.  She was trying to be politically correct before anyone 
ever used the term.  None of the teachers to teach or advocate 
any particular religion or philosophy, but by use of aphoristic 
poetry they could be sure their charges did have something with 
overt moral content in their heads.  Her own favorite couplet, 
she told us, was "'Be not the first by whom the new are tried/ 
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.' That's the best way to 
live."  I like to think that she would have been delighted if any 
of us had said what a lot of us were thinking: if you did that, 
how would there ever be any progress?  How would there be any 
tradition?"  This was not yet the age of protest, but McCarthy 
was stirring.

I don't recall any memorizing in college, but I do know that 
intense study led to "remembering" poetry, and this sometimes led 
to later study to be sure one remembers correctly.  This may mean 
taking a fresh look, and it may involve close scrutiny of 
scansion, sentence structure, and other technical aspects of the 

Since then, quite on my own, I've memorized vast tracts of 
Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Hopkins, Herbert, Donne, 
Dickinson, Tennyson, Longfellow, Whitman, Blake, Gray, Eliot. (I 
was just saying to my cat, anent coming in for the evening, 
"Hurry up please it's time ...".  I can't think who else. 
However, I would conclude that memorization is most effective 
when combined with performance.  It's invaluable.

Nancy Charlton
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