Committed to Memory

August 22, 2011

Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a memorizing binge. (I may have a disorder.) It began about a month ago at a cousin’s birthday party. After we all sang “Happy Birthday” an uncle joked that, to commemorate the day, someone should recite a poem.

I instantly grew tense. As the resident English Major, I assumed that all eyes would soon turn expectantly toward me. I scrambled to think of something substantial, but all I could recall in that moment were scattered fragments: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring / Who wears short shorts / We wear short shorts” and so on.

At the very least, I could have recited the first twelve lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English — lines which have remained fixed in my memory for nearly a decade even as other, seemingly more accessible lines have drifted away — but that particular passage didn’t feel appropriate for the occasion, considering that no one, neither the audience nor the speaker, would understand a single word of it. And I didn’t have a back-up.

Fortunately, all eyes did not turn expectantly toward me. The call for a recitation was almost immediately over-shadowed by a call for dessert, and the party moved deliciously onward.

But I didn’t. I sat there, determined that I would never allow such a moment to happen again — that I would never be caught without at least one poem in the chamber. And so, right there at that table, I looked up Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” on my iPhone and got down to memorizing.

I relay that story because I’m curious about what prompts us to memorize things. In my case, much of the motivation has been fear. Fear that, as an English Instructor, I would be exposed as some sort of fraud. And before that, fear that I would embarrass myself in front of Mr. Bergan and the rest of the class. And long before that, fear that I would let my team and my parents down at JBQ meets.

But fear isn’t (and hasn’t been) my sole motivation. And it certainly hasn’t been the only motivation for others in my circle.

I know that loyal reader (and occasional Risk champion) Rob is able to recite, word-for-word, Colonel Jessup’s famous monologue from A Few Good Men.

And speaking of colonels, I know that one Col. Havoc was at one time (and perhaps still is) able to recite, in sequence, every line of dialogue Star Wars.

I don’t think either of those were assignments for English class. Nor, as much as those two have seen those respective movies, I don’t believe they remember all of those lines simply through osmosis. There was, in each case, a conscious decision to commit lines to memory.

Why did they, and why do we, we make that decision?

Today marks the beginning of a new semester, which means, in part, that I’ll be spending the next several months looking for opportunities to spontaneously recite passages of Great Literature to my students.

And by “looking for opportunities to spontaneously recite” I really mean “carefully orchestrating moments that seem spontaneous in order to give myself an excuse to preform selections that I have painstakingly memorized and practiced.”

Yes, I’m a shameless showoff. But, even while 90 percent of me will be showing off, 10 percent will be trying to demonstrate that there are things worth memorizing.

I remember, as a junior at Bemidji State, sitting in British Lit. as Dr. Gurney introduced us to the Victorian age by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which concludes with these lines:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There was something in Dr. Gurney’s delivery that left me simultaneously awe-struck and haunted. Even as I sat there, struggling to make sense of the closing imagery and the feelings those lines stirred inside of me, I remember being grateful to have an English professor who so loved literature and language that he was able to recite from memory such poems and recite them well.

Needless to say, “Dover Beach” made my personal memorization list on this recent binge. (Having since further studied the poem, I don’t even particularly care for its ideas, but it returns me so vividly to that moment in Dr. Gurney’s classroom that I couldn’t dare leave it out.)

What, though, is the ultimate worth in all this memorization? It requires hours upon hours to commit something to memory, and then vigilance to keep it there. And for what?

At that birthday party table, I mentioned instantly looking up “Sonnet 18” on my iPhone. What, then, is the point of memorizing a poem when, by the time I’ve just about finished reciting the first couple of lines, my students could read the entire poem (and expert commentary) for themselves in between levels of Angry Birds?

The point is that, while I certainly hope to inspire a few students, I don’t memorize Great Literature only for their benefit. And I no longer memorize out of fear. And while I like showing off, I know I won’t recite everything I memorize. Indeed, there are certain passages I’ve hidden in my heart, just for me.

And I don’t entirely know why.

What things have you been obligated to memorize? Do you still remember them?

What things have you chosen to memorize? What caused you to make those choices?

What is the value of memorization when the world’s information is at our fingertips?

Have I spent the last few days writing up too many assignment questions? (Cite your sources.)

— Reinman



  1. I suspect the reason the Prologue has stuck with me is precisely because the lines were in Middle English — and I don’t think I’m alone among Bergan alumni. Rather than memorizing a logical progression of words, phrases, and ideas, we were forced, with the Prologue, to memorize sequences of sounds — which is ten times more difficult, which means we had to study ten times as hard, which is why it’s so deeply embedded.

  2. Not only did I memorize important lines from A Few Good Men for the purpose of good banter in college, I have also memorized no less than three Elvis songs. You may keep your English literature and I will keep the masterpiece that is American Trilogy by the King. I am so ashamed of myself.

  3. Songs are interesting because there are some (the Jilb) who have the ability to memorize dozens, if not hundreds, of songs simply through osmosis.

    I do not have that ability. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear a song — I won’t remember the lyrics unless I actively study them.

    That’s why the Jilb continually kicked my butt during the golden age of lyrics-themed game shows (circa Sept. – Nov. 2007).

    • That’s like the only thing I can beat you at. And maybe Call of Duty.

    • BS. I remember you and John (with some minor assistance from the rest of us) belting out Big Rock Candy Mountain from O Brother, Where Art Thou.

      True story: I just had to look up the soundtrack on Amazon just to get the song title. My memory ain’t what she used to be.

      • In fact, my memory’s gotten so bad that I forgot to put the context in which said belting was happening: just before the death march on the second day of our SHT camping trip.


      • What you may not recall, however, is that I half-faked my way through the whole song, letting John do most of the heavy lifting. I can’t emphasize enough how bad I am with song lyrics.

        The biggest thing I took away from the death march was crazy respect for Aragorn and company who would march like that all day and then slay, like, 50 Uruk Hai without so much as blinking. (Though, in our defense, Aragorn didn’t have to hump crates of Spaghetti-Os.)

  4. No, he didn’t — but we also didn’t kill any wild beasts to eat, then toss *those* over our shoulders and carry them about.

  5. Psalm 23 in Sunday School: ’cause I had to. I can still recite it. (I think)

    Hamlet’s Soliloquy (Act III Scene I) In High School English: To Show off. I can still do about half.

    On a related note, I also keep trying to memorize the Player’s (Shakespeare’s) line from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” which the Blond and I watch about every two weeks. “Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.”

    The Owl and The Pussy Cat, by Edward Lear: ’cause I had the book as a little kid, and it rocks. Favorite line: “Dear Pig, are you willing, to sell for one shilling, your ring? Said the Piggy, “I will.” So they took it away and were married next day, by the Turkey who lives on the hill.” Great stuff.

    Star Wars (NOT Episode 4…simply the Original Star Wars. Man, I hate that crap.) Can’t do it from beginning to end any more, but can do some justice to a lot of scenes, but not any better than my progeny-nerds, who can also hum the soundtrack in the background through any recitation.

    And, of course, “The Berenstain Bears Go Out for the Team”

    • You should bookend the Player’s “we can do you blood” line with the monologue he gives on the ship at the end of the movie/play (after he reveals that the knife was a prop). I remember that, at least on one occasion, the scene gave me chills.

      Patty Miller’s English class, right? Do you end with: “There’s the respect / That makes calamity of so long life?”

      If so, that would seem to suffice. The soliloquy is definitely front-loaded in the famous-lines department. About the only famous phrase afterward is “the undiscovered country” and only that because it became a title line.

      Finally, when I was writing the post, I wasn’t certain whether the “Star Wars” thing was actually true or just the stuff of legend. Like, did you ever actually sit (stand, whatever) and consciously recite all the dialogue straight through? Or, was it more an osmosis-thing — having seen the movie a ridiculous number of times, you felt as though you could have easily done it if called upon?

  6. Re: Hamlet: I usually go a wee bit past the calamity part, as I like the parts about bearing the whips and scorns of time and the proud man’s contumely (whatever that is) and the part about how he himself might his quietus make with bare bodkin, and the conclusion that conscience does make cowards of us all, and all that. Problem is, I can’t get all the little words in between, or even be confident that I have those parts right, anymore.

    Re: Star Wars: Mostly, as there wasn’t even VHS available back then, much less the interwebs, I had an LP that had about 75 percent of the dialog, which I listened to incessantly. After that, it was relatively simple matter of intentionally paying attention to the scenes that were not on the LP during the 20 or so times I saw it in the theater. (back then, believe it or not, you could pay to get in and then just stay for the second show again. Really.) I don’t recall ever doing all 120 minutes to a captive audience, (nobody cared) but I would do extended scenes on the long football bus rides, until someone would shove a dirty sweat sock in my mouth to get me to shut up. And I could do any and all scenes, so it is true that I knew the entire film by heart. (it really wasn’t that hard. It’s not War and Peace, after all)

    • I think you’ve mentioned the LP before, but I never really made the connection that it included actual dialogue (I think I always assumed it was another version of the film score).

      I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around it. Was it audio straight from the film? Actors re-reading their lines with bits of sound F/X and music? Or something else entirely? And only 75% of the movie? (The 70s, I’ve gathered, were really weird.)

  7. “from a certain point of view”. (read my own reply, and had to say it before you did)

  8. It was called “The Story of Star Wars” (We actually have a collector’s edition of it in the basement, with a cool pic of Darth Vader Laser-etched on the disc, but alas, no way to play it.)
    It was actual audio from the movie, with scene changes and plot narrated by some Brittish guy. They couldn’t fit ALL the dialog on it, because, after all, an LP is no CD. They were, however, able to put quite a bit in, because it is surprising how much of the movie is made up of long set-up shots, action sequences, etc. with very little talking. These were simply narrated with one or two sentences. I have a distinct memory of the Brittish guy saying something about Luke in the trench like, “He must destroy this technological terror the empire had created…”

  9. * “Blackbird” by the Beatles — first song I learned to play on guitar
    * Likewise, “Camptown Races” — first song I learned to play on accordion
    * ^ ^ v v B A Select Start — 30 lives in Contra
    * Bible verses: one that sticks out is 1 John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another . . . ” One that I was encouraged to memorize by the Colonel in a D-team also comes to mind — John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice: I know them, and they follow me.”
    * At one time, pretty much every line of dialogue from LOTR movies (osmosis)
    * “Rock the Party” — on a bus with Reinman, with many pains to decipher the lyrics
    * The names of the 50 states (elementary school song) and their capitals (Rockapella song)
    * “Linus and Lucy” by Vince G. on piano — probably got hooked on this from Reinman
    * Recently, my grandpa’s lottery numbers — He asked me to check the winning numbers online last weekend, and I slyly glanced at his ticket to memorize his numbers so I could recite them later.
    * The scout motto: “On my honor . . . ”
    * Integration by parts: I(u dv) = u v – I(v du)
    * Every passage imposed on us by Bergan — Note on the prologue: It’s actually fairly easy to understand the meaning, so it’s not quite rote memorization of sounds. E.g., Whon thot Ahpril with is shoores soote, the dhroote of Merch hath per-ced to the roote (sic) = When April with sweet showers has pierced to the root the drought of March.

    Oh how the list goes on . . . these are some notables.

  10. I remember the line “floss your style” from “Rock the Party” gave us particular trouble. I still don’t understand what that means.

    As for the prologue, I guess my point is that, while it is possible (maybe even easy — I was being a little facetious in the post) to determine the meaning, I’m not sure how many students memorized the lines by thinking of what was actually being said. I didn’t, at least. When I was speaking “Whon thot Ahpril with is shoores soote” I wasn’t thinking “When April with sweet showers.” I was reciting sounds.

    And doesn’t everything we memorize eventually get to that point? We can recite/sing song lyrics without “thinking.” It’s happened to me during worship songs — I’m on “auto-pilot” singing a song, not consciously thinking about what’s coming out of my mouth.

    With certain items (state capitals, “Rock the Party,” etc.) the meaning doesn’t matter. For others (worship songs, Bible verses), it’s a state-of-mind I have to guard against.

  11. Good point.
    The most embarrassing occurrence of this for me, and one of the main reasons I often think twice about just reciting memorized sounds, happened at summer camp when I was in boy scouts. Boyum and I were taking life saving merit badge. Every day we got up early in the morning to practice life saving skills and swimming conditioning in the cold lake. Every day they pounded into us our lifesaving code of action in case of an emergency. I can still recite it.

    “Reach, throw, row, go, with support as a last resort, we’re thinking men not heroes.”

    We had to yell this out every time we jumped into the water for every drill or exercise we performed. We used to do up-and-overs where we went from shore to water to dock to water to raft and back, and every time we entered the water we had to yell that code.
    Then at the end of the week came the big test. We were all put into a room and led out individually by the instructor. Upon arriving at the lakefront, I was met with an emergency situation — someone was drowning. Thinking only of putting my newly-learned skills into practice and saving the guy, I ran to the end of the dock and leaped into the water, shouting the lifesaving code as I ran and dove into the chilly lake.

    “Reach, throw, row, go, with support as a last resort, we’re thinking men not heroes.”

    Well, I saved the guy, but I certainly didn’t follow the code, and I certainly wasn’t a “thinking man” — at least I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying. Afterward I felt like such an idiot. Good life lesson.

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