We memorized a lot in school. Recently, I took a course, taught by a neurologist who has written several books on the subject, on maintaining memory function as we age, and he made an interesting point: the more we memorize as young children, the better our long term memory function is and the better we are able to utilize our working memory. My generation and those before it memorized many things but especially poetry. Memorization was discontinued by American educators many years ago — you know, the educators who, although spending more money per student than any country in the world, have brought us down to a dismal 26th ranking among developed nations.
Although we started with simple rhymes such as the alphabet rhyme, "The Sandpiper" was the first poem I memorized.
'The Sandpiper' by Celia Thaxter (1835-1894)
poem published in 1872
Across the narrow beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I
And fast, I gather, bit by bit,
The scattered driftwood bleached and dry,
The wild waves reach their hands for it,
The wild wind raves, the tide runs high,
As up and down the beach we flit —
One little sandpiper and I.
We started memorizing poems in the first grade, and "The Sandpiper" has flit through my brain ever since. Its author, Celia (Laighton) Thaxter, was born on the Isles of Shoals, was married at 16, lived on the mainland a few years, had a son who became a noted plant expert, and moved back to her beloved islands, there remaining most of her life. She lived on White, Smuttynose, and Appledore Islands (all part of the Isles) and wrote most all her poetry on the islands, pausing to write a short book about the infamous murders on Smuttynose. Her father owned the hotel on Appledore, where the adult Mrs. Thaxter served as hostess, meeting most of the New England literary elites of the day, including Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, and Sarah Orne Jewitt, one of my favorite writers. They accepted Thaxter as an equal talent, and she frequently visited them on the mainland.
Her house on Appledore burned after her death, fire being the bane of island occupancy with its flammable sea grass and constant winds, and her garden, permanently maintained, is more famous to tourists than her poetry.
Thaxter wrote poetry throughout her life and her children's poetry was known for its straightforward beauty, descriptive simplicity, and lack of moralizing. "The Sandpiper" was easily remembered, and the images presented to us were wonderful and I still see them. Although Mrs. Thaxter is on the list of lesser-known poets, those of us who memorized her poems learned that words can have rhythm and meter and be put together with beauty.
Another poem remembered from early grade school was "The Village Blacksmith," written in 1841 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Although he too is ignored by the public education cartel, Longfellow is better known than Thaxter. "The Village Blacksmith" presents strong, vivid mental pictures, and, unlike Thaxter's poetry, teach basic values. In the last stanza of the poem, Longfellow thanks the real blacksmith around whom the poem is constructed: "Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend, For the lesson thou hast taught!"
Here are the opening stanzas to "The Village Blacksmith."
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
This poem, especially the last three lines above, should be recited every day by school children to our political leaders. In reality, it is now recited hardly at all; yet, at one time it meant so much to school children that when the actual "spreading chestnut tree" was cut down, the wood was used to build a chair for Longfellow, and the money for the project was raised by the children of Cambridge, Mass.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is: email@example.com.