Thursday, April 24, 2014

Habits of the Past

Edgar Allan Poe
One day Isaac Werner was in St. John on business when he noticed a bill posted to advertise the appearance of a well known elocutionist at the new high school building scheduled for that same evening.  Although it meant traveling home in darkness, Isaac decided to attend.  A poet popular with elocutionists of that era, and of this elocutionist in particular, was Edgar Allan Poe, so perhaps Isaac heard his recitation of Annabel Lee:
It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee... 
Perhaps Isaac even knew that poem by heart, for in that time it was common for people to commit poetry to memory.  Isaac was a great believer in the importance of elocution, for he thought that speaking well not only impacted the speaking voice but also improved a person's reasoning ability.

John Donne
Many people of a generation or two ago could recite favorite poems, and some of those poems from Isaac's era are still read today.  The poems of John Donne remain staples for funeral oration.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for thou are not so...
...Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls, 
It tolls for thee.

Robert W. Service
While memorizing poetry is not so popular today, we had a friend who enjoyed nothing more than entertaining us with poetry.  One of his special favorites was "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold...
Although Service was born during Isaac's lifetime, he was not publishing poetry until too late for Isaac to have heard one of his long, narrative poems, but perhaps someone in your own family loved reciting this poem or another poem by Service, as he was a popular poet of his time.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Young lovers today may know more rap lyrics than love poems to recite to their sweethearts, but their grandfathers might have recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning's...
How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach...
While if Isaac Werner ever chose to recite poetry to a lady, he was more likely to have chosen Shakespeare, perhaps Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate...

Today the habit of reciting poetry has waned, and the more formal rhyming style of the past has been altered by modern poets.  Yet, poetry survives, in styles as different as rap music and unrhymed verse.  William Carlos Williams wrote:
     It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                         yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
In an essay written for Poetry. philosopher Richard Rorty said, "individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."  Surely Isaac would have agreed!

Perhaps reviving the old habit of memorizing poetry might be worth considering.  If so, Rudyard Kipling's advice to his son in the poem, "If," might be a good poem to select.

Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all around you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,...

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;...

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much...'ll be a Man, my son!  

(All of the poets pictured were living before or during Isaac's lifetime, although not all had begun publishing their poetry prior to his death.)


Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

From C.D.: "My maternal grandmother wrote poetry." Thanks for sharing, C.D.!

The Blog Fodder said...

How do people live without memorizing poems or at least parts of poems? The poems of my school years are with me yet.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Blog Fodder, Most of my memorizing was prose--"Four score and seven years ago..." for example. Perhaps that is why I am a lawyer and not a poet! ;-)

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

V.A. wrote: "My mom would tell us poems...loved those days." Dear V.A., How lucky you were with a mother who shared her love of poetry with her children!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

L. K. wrote: "Miss Edith Wilson, my junior high teacher/principal believed in memorizing poetry. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Children's Hour" was one assigned. I liked "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" too. Allen Soper, an attorney and WW II veteran, could recite poetry with ease. He knew Shakespeare writings and many others. He enjoyed poetry more than anyone I have ever known."

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

J.S. wrote: "My granddad memorized so many songs & poems... One of my college professors told the story of a mountain climber who had gotten stuck on a ledge, and the only way she (or he?) could pass the time/stay calm until being rescued was to keep reciting all the poems & verses, etc. that were in her head and kept her company... Memorization is a skill I wish they paid more attention to in our schools." Thank you for this great story and your granddad and the mountain climber, J.S. I too think memorizing is a good exercise, although I remember more documents that poems--"Four score and seven years ago...!"