There was only one poem I was required to memorize in all my years of schooling - Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Like most students today, I had an education in which memorization was not emphasized. My understanding is that it is even worse now. Today, the word “memorization” is often preceded by the derisive adjective “rote.” In many schools, it has been squeezed out of classrooms in favor of an almost exclusive focus on teaching “concepts” and “standards.”
In our digital information age, too, memorization seems increasingly superfluous. At a conference our president attended, one young adult fittingly summed up the attitude of many of his peers when he pulled his smartphone out of his pocket and sincerely said, “All my knowledge is in here; what purpose is there in memorizing?”
It wasn’t too long ago that Aeschylus’ maxim that “Memory is the mother of all wisdom” still enjoyed wide acceptance. Those who attended school in the 1950s, and even some beyond, still recall having to memorize poems, times tables, conjugations, and parts of some of America’s founding documents.
In the ancient world, the feats of memorization were even more impressive. Minstrels in ancient Greece would memorize the entire Iliad and Odyssey and travel around reciting them for audiences. It was common for Christians of the first millennium to memorize books of the Bible and the psalms. In fact, according to a church rule still on the books, it’s a requirement that one has to have all 150 psalms memorized in order to be made a bishop (this rule is ignored now).
So why did people in the past put so much emphasis on memory? The common belief today is that they needed to memorize because they didn’t have as much access to books. And I think there’s something to that.
But I think they also knew that memorization allows things to become a source of future contemplation. When we memorize something such as a poem or a song, we have the ability to more deeply reflect on it, to understand it more fully as time goes on. Knowledge then no longer merely remains external to us; it becomes a part of us. We become knowledge.
As Brad Leithauser put it in a piece for the New Yorker,
“The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen.”
Twenty years later, I still remember the words of that Frost poem. I have recalled it at various times in my life: as I was walking on a trail in the forest, as I was watching the snow fall, as I was letting petty things distract me from what’s truly important. Each time, it has led me to reflect, even if briefly, upon its various themes.
I wish I had memorized more things.
Image credit: Caspar David Friedrich - "Monk by the Sea"