From Memory

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.

12 comments… add one
  • sam Link

    Melville certainly had the King James version bucketing around his brain when he wrote Moby Dick. Indeed, the influence of the King James version — and Shakespeare — is so obviously present in a lot of 19th century (and some 20th century) American Literature as to seem a commonplace. I certainly agree with you that we’ve lost a lot in the service of economic progress. My guess is that with a general disparagement of the humanities as a legitimate subject of study, attention to and memorization of parts or all of the great works of literature and history have suffered. Why bother? — if there’s not a dollar to be made.

    Interesting that in film The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington’s character is blind and the King James bible he carries with him is in Braille. He’s committed it all to memory, and at the end of the film, he’s reciting it from the beginning as someone writes it down. Evidently the pleasures and power of memory still resonate, if no longer pursued as it they once were.

  • michael reynolds Link

    My daughter’s school has them memorize a poem each week. At the end of the year they put on a Shakespeare play with the upper class — 6th grade — playing the major roles and all other students participating as well. This is all “off book” by the way. I can’t say it’s Olivier exactly, but cool anyway.

    I had a lot of memorization when I was a kid, but I’ve outsourced all my memory functions to my iPhone, email and Google. In my defense I’d point out that at any given time I’m writing at least one and frequently two books and have to hold all that detail in my head. Plus apparently I’m supposed to remember my wife’s birthday.

  • PD Shaw Link

    This last weekend, boy scouts recreated Lincoln’s 20-23 hike to borrow a book.

    I wonder if the scouts listened to their ipods, or if they really experienced what it would have been like to walk a great distance alone with one’s thoughts.

    Also, while in this case Lincoln was borrowing a law book, there were few books to go around. Lincoln’s earliest reading material, the King James, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Watt’s Hymns, followed later by Shakespeare, Burns and Byron appear to reflect the limitations of the frontier. He was said to be able to recite from memory things he liked upon a single reading, but things he liked less, such as works of philosophy, novels, or the law couldn’t leave a lasting impression. Other than that, though he was like his audience, well versed in the few books that countless settlers took with them into the frontier.

  • michael reynolds Link

    If only Lincoln had had an iPod. I think the Gettysburg address as influenced by Eminem would have been interesting.

  • john personna Link

    I have my second-to-last High School Spanish “dialog” stuck in my head. I don’t suppose that’s what you mean 😉

  • steve Link

    I think it is more than just memorizing and reading. Huge numbers of people can get by at work w/o really writing much other than the jargon needed for their work. When it comes time to really write, it is more difficult to communicate.


  • jimbino Link

    I think you mixed up the Cremation of Sam McGee and the Shooting of Dan McGrew. And I don’t think the second line begins “And ….”

  • Pinky Link

    That last paragraph is gold. I’d never thought about that. (BTW, 46, half a dozen poems and the first two paragraphs of the Gettysburg Address.)

  • Thanks, jimbino. Corrected. Apparently, I store the title and the poem in different places—as you can see I got the poem part right even when I mistyped the title.

  • Jose Link

    Forget a quote. I doubt if I have a single acquaintance who knows who Robert Service and Roger Zelazny were. sigh.

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