Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Playing the Organ

This is a pretty good essay on memorization. The author notes the connection between music and poetry and language, and how the heard rhythm helps with syntax, etc. So he is in favor of reading aloud (not just memorization). I like Edgard Allan Poe’s comment that poetry is "the rhythmical creation of beauty." And all this reminds me to bring to your attention Philip Pullman’s introduction of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is very thoughtful on such matters. Note: "I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but with my mouth." You don’t have to yell the lines, a whisper will do, but "Your body has to be involved." I agree.

"The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your commend; and as you utter them you begin to realize that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it."

The sound will help you love the poem. "Once you do love something, the attempt to understand it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, and what you find when you begin to explore Paradise Lost in that way is how rich it is in thought and argument."
And the poem has the power to stir a physical response, that’s why A.E. Housman did not dare to think a line of poetry while he was shaving, in case he cut himself.

Try a few lines from Paradise Lost. Satan looks around:

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Serv’d only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed

With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d

Discussions - 5 Comments

Dr Schramm,

Whose translation is that passage from Dante? thanks...

That is not Dante, not a translation. It is Book I, lines 60-69, of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Thirty years ago, at Johns Hopkins, I had two courses with Hugh Kenner, who was probably the best writer on twentieth-century literary modernism. Kenner could quote long passages of English poetry, and sometimes would do so, in class. Students would stare at him and then, after about a minute, look down at the papers in front of him, to see if he was, somehow, reading without looking. But it wasn’t a parlor trick. A few years before he died, he gave an interview in the alumni mag, saying, "Once the students get over being impressed by it, they see that it’s a very handy thing to be able to do."

Will: Thanks for yours. I knew Hugh Kenner (over 25 years ago) and heard him recite from memory a couple of times. It was impressive. Another fellow who does it well is Allen Guelzo, the Lincoln scholar; poetry, songs, stories. Very impressive, moving.

My home schooled daughter is very grateful for your article. She has been "wasting" quantities of time this week trying to memorize Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics, particularly Yum-Yum’s somg from The Mikado. After reading your piece I have given in and counted it as part of the daily curriculum. Poetry memorization seems to be too much to ask.

Also, a young and pregnant friend, close to term reports that her husband is reading to their unborn son. I suggested poetry, remembering how well my infants appreciated rhythmic language, rhythmic back-patting, rocking at the correct pace and music with a regular beat. Hence nursery rhymes, I suppose. This must relate to the earliest rhythms of life, mother’s heartbeat, so that poetry HAS to appeal to every man born of woman.

Then do infants hear the heartbeat in iamb or trochee? Surely more often in iamb as that seems more common in poetry - and does that mean anything in the way a person relates to life?

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