Monday, March 24, 2008

Verse on Command

I've often marveled at, and been somewhat envious of, various people who have a great memory of literature. There are those who can quote chapter and verse from the Bible; others can recite epic poems or entire Shakespeare soliloquies. At the moment, all the people I have in mind are actually characters in some sort of fiction or other. Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, regularly demonstrates a wide knowledge of literature, especially Shakespeare, by quoting lines from various works. Patrick Stewart, a noted Shakespearian actor who portrays Picard, is naturally quite able to deliver Shakespeare on demand, although as it happens the one example I can think of off the top of my head occurs in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, when Picard quotes from Moby Dick. Adam Dalgliesh, the detective lead in some dozen of P. D. James' mysteries, also quotes assorted verse from time to time. As he is a published poet as well as a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, I guess that's to be expected. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is yet another who can recall all manner of verse and such; I recall one story where he recites the Declaration of Independence (I think - or was it the Preamble to the Constitution?) from memory to give Archie Goodwin the sound of his voice to follow as they walk away from a confrontation because Archie's attention is focused on watching the receding bad guys (I think this comes from The Black Mountain, but since I'm at work, where we haven't a Rex Stout reference library, I'm guessing). Of course, each of these characters is fictional, which allows their respective creators to endow them with all sorts of memory and other abilities that are perhaps slightly supernormal. Maybe in my next life I can be a fictional character too; I've got quite a wish list of personal qualities and personality traits for incorporation in my fictional self.

I do occasionally have some line of something come to mind, but quite often I'm unable to recall where it came from. The only bit of verse that I can usually remember is not from Shakespeare or U.S. history; instead it's from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh:

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don't know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fish can't whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

To see this as it was performed by Rowlf the dog on the Muppet Show, go here:

I have occasionally made an effort to commit some verse or poem to memory, but haven't managed to make one stay there for any appreciable length of time. It was pointed out to me recently that many of the (real) people I've encountered who have poems or soliloquies memorized do so because they were required to learn them in school; at one time this was a normal part of one's education. Maybe it still is in some private schools - as a product of the public school system in Houston, Texas, I wouldn't know. Conversely, I am still able to recall most of the music I committed to memory, and a good bit of it that I didn't intend to memorize as well. So, I suppose if I had studied acting instead, I might know and recall more stuff from the stage; outright poetry, on the other hand, would have to have come from English and Literature courses. Which I took, and usually did well in, but apparently didn't actually learn anything
that I can remember in. Besides music, my memory banks are loaded with all sorts of other data of dubious value, such as model differences in all sorts of general aviation and commercial aircraft, cars, trucks, and some other mechanical contrivances as well (ask me the difference between a Clarkette, a Clarkat, and a Clarktor - I'm ready for you!) Alas, none of my friends and acquaintances at the Long Beach Shakespeare Company ( ) or anywhere else, for that matter, seem at all interested in nor impressed with this ability. Speaking of the LBSC, I recently saw their current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which contains the one bit of Shakespeare that I can barely retain in my sieve of a memory: Puck's closing lines from Act 5, which also end the show:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

To see this as performed (well, sort of) by the Animaniacs, go here:

Here's some other verse that I wish I could recite at will:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

-- Walt Whitman

Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.

-- Walt Whitman

There are more - I was going to include Coleridge's The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, but that work is longer than the entirety of this entry. So too would be the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the Preamble to the Constitution. Oh, and add some Robert Burns to the list as well. So, as it's my mother's birthday, I'll instead include her favorite "wish I could remember" verse:

The Jaberwocky

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffing through the tugey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jaberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did grye and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

-- Lewis Carroll

Happy birthday, mom!

1 comment:

  1. Probable, possible my black hen
    She lays eggs in the relative when
    She does not lay in the absolute now
    For she is unable to postulate how.

    Who said that?