According to Plutarch, following the defeat of the Athenian military expedition to Syracuse in 413 BC, many Athenian soldiers avoided capture - and received food and shelter from the local populace - by reciting verses from Euripides, the most popular Greek poet among the Sicilians.
I admire the devotion to literature shown by both the Athenian soldiers and their Sicilian benefactors.
My own devotion to literature came late. My first encounters with the printed word did not go well. I was slow in learning to read, and - once having learned - I was, and remain, a slow reader. Though coming from a family of readers and living in a home filled with books, I seldom read on my own, reading only what was required at school.
By his late teens, Nabokov had read the major Russian, French and English writers. I followed a different path. Sports, not books, were the center of my life.
With my poor grades, I gained entry to college as a "late bloomer." Hopes went unfulfilled. I ended freshman year on academic probation.
Energized by this setback, and enthused by changing my major from government to literature, I began, if not to bloom, at least to bud.
During my remaining three years at college, I read many great works of literature. I have continued to read with undiminished enthusiasm. In recent years, I have come to feel especially close to Montaigne and Thoreau, and to my beloved Russians, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
Each day I try to set aside time to read. These are sweet moments, a welcome relief from daily chores.
If I were, like the Athenians, to find myself a fugitive in a literature-loving land, what verses would I recite to obtain shelter and sustenance?
Alas, most of the poetry I can recite today I learned in detention at elementary school. Miscreants at school did penance, not by writing "I will behave myself" hundreds of times, but by memorizing poems.
I would not select a detention poem. Rather, I would choose a poem I memorized in college; a poem of discovery that, more than anything, led me to the discovery of literature - Keats's "On first looking into Chapman's Homer."
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
- John Keats
April is National Poetry Month.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor