The whole thrust of the modern world is toward a slighting of memory. These days, most of us worry more about how much memory our computers have than about developing this profound faculty in ourselves.
At Wyoming Catholic College, our students continue a practice of great antiquity—they memorize poetry. Although people have never stopped doing so informally, the importance of memorization in a sound education was revived by John Senior and his colleagues, Frank Nelick and Dennis Quinn, in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas back in the 1970s. Dr. Robert Carlson, one of the three co-founders of WCC, studied in in that storied program, and he brought many of its ideas into the Philosophical Vision Statement that is our founding document.
Learning poems “by heart,” as the saying is, crucially informs a good education for numerous reasons, but certainly one of them is training the memory. By the time they are seniors, our students are not only steeped in theology and the perennial philosophy, outdoor leadership and Latin, the great histories, novels, epics, tragedies, and comedies, but they can also spontaneously recite several dozen lyric poems, from Donne to Dickinson to Frost, prompted by a title or a few of the opening words. For example, say “Let me not” with an air of expectation, and they will smile and finish the line, “to the marriage of true minds” and go from there. Say the name “Margaret,” and they will perform Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.” Say “The world is,” however, and they will need some direction, because both Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us” and Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” begin with the same words. (My wife reminds me that I have written these things before, probably recently. My kinship with Montaigne deepens.)
Last week Virginia and I had over to our house a group of students who were planning a performance of The Tempest for February. They wanted to talk through the various themes of the play and the important roles. Toward the end, when I asked them which passages or scenes were giving them the most trouble, the two student directors said they would be able to identify these better when all the actors had memorized their lines. At this comment, a general groaning broke out, obviously because memorization is, for the actors, the most challenging part of getting ready for a play, and everything depends on every actor knowing all his or her lines. One of the five canons of ancient rhetoric was almost exactly this kind of memorization. Cicero, for example, not only wrote speeches that set the standards for the Latin language, but memorized them rapidly, often overnight, to present without notes. The ancients developed arts of memory that have now become arcane, but the extraordinary capacities of some of our greatest poets and statesmen relied upon those arts.[*] It’s interesting that acting also calls upon them.
I’ve been reading Dr. Samuel Johnson a good deal of late, and I was struck by a passage in his Life of Pope, specifically having to do with memory. Johnson writes that the great 18th century poet and translator, Alexander Pope, had a mind active, ambitious, and adventurous, always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still longing to go forward, in its highest flight still wishing to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavoring more than it can do.” This description might fit many entrepreneurs and innovators in our day, but many of our contemporaries do not often look to the great tradition of the past. By contrast, “To assist his powers, [Pope] is said to have had great strength and exactness of memory. That which he had heard or read was not easily lost; and he had before him not only what his own meditation suggested, but what he had found in other writers that might be accommodated to his present purpose.” This is the kind of memory, it goes without saying, that we hope to develop in our students at Wyoming Catholic College. A trained and resourceful memory helps direct ambitious and adventurous thought.
In a way, the whole thrust of the modern world—or perhaps it’s postmodern, maybe even post-postmodern (I forget)—is toward a slighting of memory. These days, most of us worry more about how much memory our computers have than about developing this profound faculty in ourselves. In planning our days, we offload as much as possible into reminder apps or notebooks with the goal of not needing to remember anything, since it is all somewhere else, ready to hand; productivity experts even urge us in this direction, as though not having to remember anything would make us peaceful at heart and mentally agile in a kind of Zen perfection.
But it was not so for St. Augustine, who offers a good corrective to this contemporary disposition, and it’s the best kind of corrective—not a reproach, but an opening to wonder. “Great is this force of memory, excessive great, O my God; a large and boundless chamber!” he writes in the Confessions. “Whoever sounded the bottom thereof? yet is this a power of mine, and belongs unto my nature; nor do I myself comprehend all that I am. The mind is too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be, which it containeth not of itself? Is it without it, and not within? how then doth it not comprehend itself? A wonderful admiration surprises me, amazement seizes me.”
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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* See Yates, Frances. The Art of Memory. London: Random House UK, 2014.
The featured image is a phrenology diagram, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.