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Furniture of the Mind

On memorization.

When I was in the second grade, my classroom had a small bookshelf from which our teacher, Mrs. Atkinson, could take the books that she read to the class. When we had indoor recess time, I had the run of the shelf and, on one particularly rainy day, I found a book full of amusing poems. One of them ran thus:

Hickory, dickory, dock!
The biological clock:
It comes alive
At thirty-five.
Hickory, dickory, dock!

This wasn’t quite second-grade material, but I found it very funny. There were other poems along the same lines, and I laughed so unceasingly that I was sent to the principal’s office—alas, not for the first (or last) time. Mrs. Atkinson was not a teacher given to humor. She had read us Mr. Popper’s Penguins in the most perfunctory way.

It has been nearly four decades since I read that parody of “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” and I read it only once; yet I still remember it well. It has become part of the furniture of my mind. I now think that reading that poem, amongst other nonsense verse, had a formative effect on my interest in humor and poetry. A few years later, chased by children up into a tree, I jumped around from branch to branch, shouting rhyming nonsense at them. I wasn’t quite Bilbo Baggins taunting the attercops of Mirkwood, but it was close.

It seems that committing words to memory, voluntarily or not, can form us in ways that we can scarcely imagine. We all generally accept this with regard to prayer as it relates to our spiritual formation: if we, like “the pious monks of St. Bernard” in Longfellow’s “Excelsior”, utter “the oft-repeated prayer,” then we will find ourselves changed as a result: not just more faithful and more able to form new connections between what we have read and what we are doing (e.g. connecting Longfellow’s poetry to a piece about the value of memorization), but also changed in the very essence of who we are. Thus memorization has both a useful function and a formative function. I would not have been up that tree shouting incendiary nonsense otherwise.

If we read well, we should also undertake to memorize those things which are most edifying and delightful. Consider this, from Gray’s “Elegy”:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
      And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
     The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Or these lines from Melville’s Moby Dick:

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Gray’s lines convey a powerful truth delivered in a beautiful form: sic transit gloria, we may say, for the sake of brevity, but Gray has done it better. When I committed these lines to memory, they became a part of the furniture of my mind; and, after all, what is a room but the furnishings within it? Reading the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” for the first time, I was struck by how beautiful and true it was, and I wanted better to reflect that truth and beauty in my own person. Memorizing the poem cannot miraculously effect that transformation, but it certainly helps.

Even this discussion of truth and beauty is framed within the context of being formed by what we have read and memorized. It is Keats, after all, who links the two in the closing lines of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Not only have these texts formed me, they have formed countless others as well, creating a vast web of invisible influences (certainly there are people who accept Keats’s famous conclusion despite never having read it). Famously, Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety caused by these influences in a book aptly titled The Anxiety of Influence, where he laments how difficult it is to be a genius and to write something truly original. But I rather think that it is our great fortune to be able to experience the most excellent expressions of humanity and to participate in that conversation. If it ends up sounding a bit like Thomas Gray, and a bit like Herman Melville, and a bit like John Keats, that is no bad thing. I suspect even old Mrs. Atkinson would approve.