[Milton-L] Late entry -- memorizing poetry
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
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
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
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.
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