Sunday, December 08, 2019

'This Scrapbook of Little Pictures'

In the car on the way home from work on Friday, before listening to music as I do most days, I tried reciting George Herbert’s “Prayer (I)” from memory, as described in Friday’s post. I think I made it through the fourth line before stumbling. I didn’t have the text with me to be certain. When young I found memorization rather easy. A high-school English teacher suggested I study immediately before going to sleep, and that seemed to work with poetry and Latin verbs, but the nature of memory changes as one ages. Of course, short-term memory unravels first. Everyone recognizes that, and some expect a diagnosis of dementia within the week. Boomers are self-centered even about brain disease.

I’ve always memorized poetry for its entertainment value. The natural accompaniments to walking and driving, especially when one is alone, are singing and recitation. The first poet I chose to memorize on my own, apart from school assignments (“What is so rare as a day in June?”), was T.S. Eliot (a junior high school crush). Shakespeare, Keats, Joyce, Allen Tate and Howard Nemerov followed. Voluntary memorization is a tribute and the truest act of criticism.       

In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014), John Drury describes “Prayer (I)” as “an ecstatic and delicious list” of prayer’s qualities. The poem induces a “giddy exhilaration,” Drury says, and I find it so. Perhaps exhilaration is an essential quality in the poems I choose to memorize. Drury writes:

“The images, each of them a delicious surprise, come tumbling out headlong – five in a row in line 9 and twenty-six in all. The sheer joy of it all in a sonnet devoted to the sober subjects of prayer astonishes its readers. The mystical and the sensual are old partners.... the happy wit of this scrapbook of little pictures makes for something less grand, a more accessible and somehow English sublimity. ‘Something understood’ ties everything up into the pragmatic benefit of praying: that it settles the mind.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

I've had Drury's book for three years now, but have yet to get into it. Thanks for the reminder!