Two Casualties of the Modern World: Poetry and Memorization

It is interesting to read about education in the 19th century.  One encounters a former emphasis on memorization and recitation.  I suppose that method is considered inadequate now and we have moved well past it.  

I can’t help but think, though, that it is a loss that children no longer know what it means to embed bits of verse and wisdom into one’s mind.  The title and substance of Rudyard Kipling’s The Gods of the Copybook Headings (“The wages of sin is death.” and “If you don’t work, you die.”) makes little sense to a modern person because no one copies and memorizes pithy statements any more.  

Though I am in my early 40’s, I, too, am part of the more modern set which possesses very little memorized material.  For that reason, I find myself somewhat awed and wistful when I see what a person like my father (educated in rural Tennessee) still owns thanks to his school lessons.  

On occasion he has quoted from The Chambered Nautilus by the poet father, not the jurist son, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

But my favorite that he occasionally shares is from William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join 
The innumerable caravan which moves 
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take 
His chamber in the silent halls of death, 
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night, 
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed 
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave 
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch 
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

These are materials which help a person to grow strong and to endure life’s difficulties.  I regret that we no longer build with them.  We are replacing stone with vinyl.


5 thoughts on “Two Casualties of the Modern World: Poetry and Memorization

  1. My Geometry teacher ages ago would always release us with Shakespeare from his memory. By the end of the year a few of us joined him in his recitation as we walked out of class. As much as I despised Geometry, that still puts a smile on my face.

  2. I’m not sure what it says about me that I have a B.A. in English and a J.D. and just NOW realized that OWH the poet and OWH the judge are not the same person, but father and son — thanks for that! [And you might be surprised at how many of your female union students know at least a portion of that poem by heart. :)]

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