Editorial: Words of a Lifetime

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Memorization has had a low reputation in education circles for several generations now. Teachers believe it stifles creativity while failing to enhance critical thinking skills; students’ eyes glaze over at the mere mention of it; parents doubt that it will advance the college prospects of their offspring. In short, it’s viewed as a dead end.

A recent essay in The New York Times, however, took a refreshingly contrarian view. In it, Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina, made a compelling argument for the enduring value of memorizing literary works, especially poetry. Indeed, members of the doddering generational remnant that was obliged to commit to memory some Shakespeare (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”); some poetry (“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”) and some foundational political orations (“With malice toward none; with charity for all”) can personally attest to the pleasure and profit to be gained from committing to memory at least a small part of the traditional literary canon. 

Worth contends that today’s Twitter-immersed students could benefit from a little required memorization. Sure, anyone with a functioning internet connection can summon up almost instantaneously just about any poem or passage of prose. But memorization is not primarily a reference aid (just ask any editorial writer who has misquoted in print an imperfectly remembered line from a literary work.) Rather, it is one important way of coming to grips with meaning. Poems in particular often defy ready understanding, perhaps because they so often deal with the deep mysteries of human existence. For most people, memorization requires repeated, close, diligent reading of a poem, the full import of which may be only gradually revealed sound by sound, word by word, line by line — and sometimes even punctuation mark by punctuation mark. That sort of deep engagement is necessary to unearth the rich treasure that lies hidden beneath the surface of many poems.

Memorization of the best literary works can also imprint on the pathways of the brain rhetorical patterns that shape one’s own means of expression for the better. Many a great literary style (Lincoln’s, for instance) was honed through deep immersion in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. This is not only a matter of taking on board the majestic language but also the rhetorical rhythms with which that language is deployed.  

This can be seen and heard in the symmetry as well as the elevated language of the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. For many people, its rich prose indelibly solemnizes life’s most important passages, even if they don’t quite remember where the lines came from: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” and, of course, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The words that we and our loved ones live — and die — by, and how they are ordered, inevitably shape that experience.

They can also enrich our day-to-day engagement with the world around us. A sweet, repeated birdsong heard on a woodland walk never fails to call to mind for us Robert Browning’s great lines: “That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over/Lest you should think he could never recapture/ The first fine careless rapture!” Memorization is a fine way to recapture it and hold it for a lifetime.