Memorizing poetry

One thing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work has done is to remind me of my project to memorize some of the poems that have stuck with me over time. In addition to indicating a poetic repertoire that puts much of modern education to shame, A Time of Gifts also recounts this episode from his service during WWII:

The hazards of war landed me among the crags of occupied Crete with a band of Cretan guerillas and a captive German general whom we had waylaid and carried off into the mountains three days before. The German garrison of the island were in hot, but luckily temporarily misdirected, chase. It was a time of anxiety and danger; and for our captive, of hardship and distress. During a lull in the pursuit, we broke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain, for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum

It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:

nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint actuo,

and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

Even aside from serendipitous meetings like that, there is a value to memorization. Much of the doldrums of life constitute an assault on the wonder we should have at it. Religion is the primary counterattack. “Behold, I make all things new.” Those of us who are Catholic or Orthodox in particular are generally expected to have a variety of formal prayers on hand. But poetry also has a place in this fight, and it ought not to be confined to moments where we sneak aside with a book. Indeed I think my experience with prayer during these years as a Catholic have made me more aware more generally of the value of being able to draw from words that are not your own.

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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