Sir Walter Scott's sweet revenge - on me

"Breathes there the man with soul so dead...." This bit of blather by Sir Walter Scott - all 16 lines of it - is the only poem I know by heart. I learned it twice - in two different schools. I've carried around favorite poems by Frost, Keats, Hopkins, and others in my pocket for years, saying them over to myself at red lights, on long walks, in waiting rooms, or just sitting around in chairs. I remember them for a short time - and then they're gone. Vanished. As if they'd never been. And in my pocket gradually the lines begin to rub off, the paper crumbles; and I have to copy them out all over again. But "Breathes there the man...." I can recite that in my sleep.

My 18-year-old granddaughter can recite any number of poems. She rattles them off whenever I ask her to, or when bored. I once paid her father, when he was about 10, a quarter for memorizing "The Pasture," an eight-line poem by Robert Frost, but I'm not sure he knows it now.

When I taught Shakespeare in college one year, I made my students learn 50 lines from each play by heart. When they complained, I told them I was really doing them a favor. They would have something to occupy their minds if they were ever incarcerated in a foreign country - or for breaking the law in their own. (Would one get away with saying this sort of thing today? I very much doubt it.) Perhaps more to the point, they would have something to fill their minds when bored, shipwrecked, becalmed, or lost in the woods. Milton, I informed them, was blind when he composed "Paradise Lost." "He had to keep it all in his head."

"He dictated it to his daughters," someone said.

"Line by line!" another voice piped up.

"They were his slaves!" an irate student shouted.

"Solzhenitsyn wrote 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' in prison, memorizing it as he went along," I said. "No pencil or paper even." That silenced them.

"And get the punctuation right, too," I added, taking advantage of my lead. They could discover for themselves how arbitrary Elizabethan punctuation was.

Actually, I really did think I was doing them something of a favor, although even at the time I had trouble with justifying their reading all of the plays - not to mention memorizing 50 lines from every one of them. (Were there 50-line passages of memorable poetry in "Henry VIII," for example?) Given the perspective of 30-some years, I have to admit that I hadn't worked out every wrinkle - or foreseen the possibilities of their taking shortcuts.


Yes, indeed, I was well aware there were ways around such teacherly stratagems. In Sunday school, I had been told to memorize a verse from the Bible. "Jesus wept," I declaimed. How I laughed at my own cleverness. The second teacher who asked me to memorize a poem didn't know I already knew one, for I had changed schools. Clever me. I would "memorize" it again.

I hadn't counted on my own students being "clever," too. One of my ex-students called me up recently and in passing mentioned that she'd memorized stage directions when she'd taken my Shakespeare course. She seemed to find that very amusing. "Stage directions?" I said, having forgotten that detail completely. She laughed.

"Oh, yes," she said. "My favorite was from 'Titus Andronicus': 'Enter Lavinia, ravished.' " It had been 30 years or so, but she still knew some of them. "Exit, pursued by a bear." That one I remembered myself.

Was there some dim justice in all this?

"Breathes there the man...." had stuck. And its very presence seemed to have blocked out any other poem from staying in my mind. If I were ever jailed or abandoned on a desert island, I would have only that one poem to contemplate. And that poem, I'd found out much later, was actually one of the examples of bad poetry in the freshman textbook I used for years. "Bathos: the art of sinking in poetry."

I was sunk all right. And it was my sixth-grade teachers - both of them - who had the last laugh. Justice, I suppose. Like the noble Dane (to paraphrase Hamlet: III, iv, l. 207), I had been "heisted by my own petard."

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