Back in my parents’ day memorization was a routine part of early education. I don’t just mean memorizing the names of the parts of speech or times tables but memorizing all sorts of things: poems, famous speeches, state capitals, the presidents, the succession of English kings, lots of others things.
I recall fifty years ago at scout camp one of our troop leaders stood in front of the campfire and recited from memory the entirety of a lengthy narrative poem (Robert Service’s eerie The Cremation of Sam McGee). I was so impressed by the feat that I memorized it myself. I can still recite it all of these years later.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
And the arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see.
Was that night on the marge of Lake LaBarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
I also have the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, some Shakespearean sonnets and lots of the soliloquies, stanzas of Macaulay’s Horatius, some poems by Browning and William Butler Yeats, snippets of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, psalms, and all sorts of other things committed to memory. Even quotations from science fiction novels (I am Shadowjack, the thief who walks in silence and in shadows! I was beheaded in Igles and rose again from the Dung Pits of Glyve. I drank the blood of a vampire and ate a stone. I am the breaker of the Compact. I am he who forged a name in the Red Book of Ells. I am the prisoner in the jewel. I duped the Lord of High Dudgeon once, and I will return for vengeance upon him. I am the enemy of my enemies. Come take me, filth, if you love the Lord of Bats or despise me, for I have named myself Jack of Shadows! Oddly, I have run into a number of people over the years who had that passage committed to memory.) I guess I’m a throwback.
This is far from exceptional from a global standpoint. There are many, many people in the world who have the entirety of the Qur’an committed to memory, some who have the whole Bible, and any number who have massive chunks of the Bible committed to memory. Years ago thousands of people had the Book of Changes committed to memory and it wasn’t too long ago that millions memorized Mao’s Little Red Book.
This may seem quaint and obsolete in a world with the Internet and Google but I’m not so sure. There’s a difference between being able to find something and actually living with it, between being able to look up a picture of a Persian rug on the Internet and having one on your floor. Committing poetry or other texts to memory makes them part of the cadence and subtext of your thought and speech.
Would Lincoln’s speeches have had their expressiveness and force if he hadn’t read the King James translation of the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, committing parts of them to memory? He didn’t quote the Bible or Shakespeare in his speeches but his speeches are full of their rhythm and texture.
I think that some of the incredible poverty of our daily discourse is the transition away from memorization of great and wonderful poetry (it’s irrelevant!) in the direction of advertising slogans. We may not know If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended/That you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear but we do know Great taste! Less filling! Recall, Sesame Street is explicitly a deployment of the principles of television advertising in the service of education.