October 22, 2008

A Psalm of Life

"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
but make allowance for their doubting too..."

My high school friends had warned me that while loopily winding one's way out of anaesthesia from getting one's wisdom teeth removed, one is at risk of telling one's mother things one didn't mean to. You know, things. Apparently I didn't have a lot of things to tell, because there I was in that purportedly risky moment quoting to my rather astonished mother every single line of the marvellous poem If by Rudyard Kipling. Mother was even more surprised to learn that it had been laying dormant in the dark corners of my brain since fourth grade.

Mrs. Presley, my fourth grade teacher, was an old timer who firmly believed in the virtues of memory work. It was a constant in her classroom. Incredibly, I still remember almost everything I memorized at her behest, including the 100th Psalm and Noche de Paz (Silent Night in Spanish).

Just goes to show that what you feed to a young mind really does matter.

Spuddy Buddy is now in fourth grade, and we have been doing a lot of recitation work together this fall. In addition to some carefully selected poems, we are also memorizing the first chapter of John together over this school year. And we'll soon be getting that beloved 100th Psalm ready for reciting with the family at Thanksgiving dinner.

It was the legendary teacher Jack Cody -- Texas State Teacher of the Year in 2000 and my very dear lifelong friend and mentor -- who handed me an intoxicatingly aromatic mimeographed copy of A Psalm of Life by Longfellow for memorization. He gave our high school literature class such a stirring recitation of it that it is still his voice I hear in my head when I read it or even just think of the stanzas. This poem has been a fixture in my thought world ever since, and as such it has served me well. Different stanzas have floated to the top of my thoughts at different times, granting wisdom proper to the moment.

For instance, Mr. Cody could not have foreseen that the seventeen year old girl in the second row would someday lean into that second stanza while battling cancer thirty years later, would pause over this phrase and that one while grinding through the rugged detox from the pain meds, would huff through the last stanza over and over during the frustrating months of physical rehab that followed.

And therein lies the virtue of memorization: it allows you to meditate on a feast of ideas and beauty at will, to chew on a great thought many times over the course of a lifetime -- a lifetime so busy that you might never come across that poem on a page again, but once it becomes part of the furniture of your mind it is always available to you at any moment. Memorization populates your thought life with wise voices that will speak to you in both moments of need and moments of abundance.

I see now that it was a gift. When my father sat there with the Psalms open in his lap and had me recite whole chapters, when Mrs. Presley has us stand and chant Kipling together each morning till we had it down cold, when Mr. Cody took the time to read Longfellow and Dickinson aloud to us during precious class time... it was a gift. It was definitely something they could have just skipped. At the time, to me, it just looked like work. But can you see? It was really an act of love.

A Psalm of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.



Kat said...

This is a wonderful poem. It comes to me at times too, just from the several times that I have read it. I should really-truly memorize it one of these days.
Memorization IS so important. Those bits are what come to the front of your thoughts and give strength and structure to a tired or distracted mind--verses, poems, songs. The one who carefully commits things that are good and true to memory has a treasure indeed!

SeƱora Smith said...

Queen Shenaynay,

Thank you for posting this! Quite coincidentally, our family memorized Psalm 100 earlier this year, and my 11 yo is currently working on IF to recite to my dad on his 60th birthday coming up! But this is what I wanted to share... When we were learning Psalm 100, I had posted it in various places throughout the house where people linger & would have the opportunity to read it. One of those places was above my daughter's changing table. Well, guess what started coming out of her mouth? In it's entirety. There is nothing like the voice of a two year old very sweetly beginning, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord all ye lands..." unprompted in her carseat in the back of the van when everything is quiet. It will be that voice I still hear years from now whenever I think of Psalm 100. This is for sure the year that the value of memorization and recitation became real to me! Thank you for sharing your journey so generously - I always learn so much.

Owl of the Desert said...

Beautiful. I love the line

"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul."

I had never read this poem before, but I think now it goes on my favorites list!

I loved your comments on the important of memorization, too. Definitely something I want to pass on to my children. When we were in school, mom would post notecards with Bible verses on them above our sink. So, we got to read the verses at least twice every day. It's THOSE verses that I remember so easily now.

I think I'll go put a verse or two above my sink... :-)

Katie said...

Your Majesty, I was wondering if you might pop over to my blog and read the debate the children had about free speech and offer up your comments?

I hit a bit of a wall in my questioning of the candidates and was not able to help them get to the root of the matter in the way I had hoped. We really need some feedback, and they love and respect you so much, and I know you are such a sweet and tactful lady and will be able to tell all of us your opinion in a pointed yet beautifully sensitive way.

I know I'm asking a lot. If you can't manage it this week, I understand. :O)

The issue is whether certain words ought to be forbidden in our house-- these are relatively innocuous words that have been assigned derogatory meaning by my sweet little children. They all think the words should be forbidden. I am opposed (where will it end?) but am trying (unsuccessfully) to stay neutral.

Here is the link: