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The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What is the most meaningful piece of poetry or prose you have committed to memory?

Photo by My Father

The act of memorizing a long piece of poetry or prose is a commitment.  But once done, it is available for years, perhaps decades.  Of the longer pieces of poetry or prose you have committed to memory, perhaps for public speaking contests, monologues in plays, or just for sport, which has been the most meaningful? 


  1. Because I use them regularly presiding at funerals Ecclesiastes 3 (For everything there is a season) and Romans 8:37-38 (I am convinced that neither death, nor life... will separate us from the love of our Lord, Christ Jesus) I have committed to memory. Also several Psalms for various occasions like 91, 120, 88.

  2. To an Athlete Dying Young, by A.E. Houseman. It's resonance comes around all too often.

  3. A wise old owl lived in and oak
    The more he listen the less he spoke
    The less he spoke the more he heard.
    Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

  4. Have recently memorized "I Follow a Noble Father" by Edgar A. Guest, because my father is 95-years-old and want to be prepared for his eventual funeral. Also memorized "I Went to the Woods to Live Deliberately" by Henry David Thoreau, because of my decades long affair w/ nature. As a lifelong traditional Methodist, I've not only memorized The Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalms, but also quite a few of the old hymns.

  5. I grow old, I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers as I walk upon the beach / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    (Or something like that)

    -- T. S. Elliot

  6. Masonic ritual. Everything we do was handed down from an older generation, cared for by a present generation, and passed along exactly the next generation. Of these, the most important is the Funeral Ritual. It is important not for us, but for our departed and his family and friends.

  7. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by the poet represented in the excellent black and white photograph heading this post.

    1. Me too! And I recite it (to myself) whenever I'm in the woods in the winter. Ironically, Frost wrote the poem in June.

  8. Gaily bedight,
    A gallant knight,
    In sunshine and in shadow,
    Had journeyed long,
    Singing a song,
    In search of Eldorado.

    But he grew old—
    This knight so bold—
    And o’er his heart a shadow—
    Fell as he found
    No spot of ground
    That looked like Eldorado.

    And, as his strength
    Failed him at length,
    He met a pilgrim shadow—
    ‘Shadow,’ said he,
    ‘Where can it be—
    This land of Eldorado?’

    ‘Over the Mountains
    Of the Moon,
    Down the Valley of the Shadow,
    Ride, boldly ride,’
    The shade replied,—
    ‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

  9. The Tyger, of course!

  10. The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
    You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
    You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
    If the thunder don’t get you the lightning will!
    Robert Hunter

  11. There are many, but I think "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson would be tough to beat. It was turned into a song by Simon and Garfunkel, and was also the favorite of the great actor Richard Burton. Message: people really don't know anything about each other.

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    "Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

  12. “Antigonish” It is my most meaningful piece because I never heard “What the author was really saying was....” in any conversation related to this poem and for me that makes it unique.

  13. Poetry for my son, which I began when he was three as a nightly ritual...Invictus, by William Henley, to give him strength when bullied. Trees, by Joyce Kilmer, to remind him of the beauty of God’s creation. The Road Not Taken, for faith in the path less traveled and individual decisions made. Winken, Blinken and Nod, by Eugene Field, to bring rest!

    Lord’s Prayer, Doxology, 23rd Psalm of course for Sunday!

  14. I am working on memorizing "Ithaca" by C.P. Cavafy. (the English translation) It really touches me.

  15. "It Can Be Done," by Edgar Guest; "If," by Kipling. Patrick Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech. The books of Ephesians and James, various Psalms.

    Once had the privilege of listening to General Hal Moore recite most of Kipling's "Gunga Din" from memory. It was a favorite of his.

  16. Goodnight Moon, read countless times with my daughter :)

  17. Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

    Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
    About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
    Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
    And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
    And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
    Trail with daisies and barley
    Down the rivers of the windfall light.

    And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
    About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
    In the sun that is young once only,
    Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means,
    And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
    Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
    And the sabbath rang slowly
    In the pebbles of the holy streams.

    All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
    Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
    And playing, lovely and watery
    And fire green as grass.
    And nightly under the simple stars
    As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
    All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
    Flying with the ricks, and the horses
    Flashing into the dark

  18. What about song lyrics? We see Robert Hunter is already mentioned. Somebody must be a Bob Dylan (he the Nobel laureate) fan? (Dylan once said, among his collaborators, Hunter was the only one who he allowed to make changes “without question”).
    Don’t forget Chuck Berry. Here’s a partial from “Promised Land...”
    Somebody help get out of Louisiana
    Help me get to Houston town
    There’s people there who care a little bit about me
    And they won’t let the poor boy down
    Sure as you’re born they bought me a silk suit
    Put luggage in my hand
    And I woke up flying over Albuquerque
    On a jet to the promised land
    Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte’ (!)
    Flying over to the Golden State
    The pilot told us in thirteen minutes
    We’d be head in at the terminal gate
    Swing low sweet chariot
    Come down easy
    Taxi to the terminal zone
    Cut your engines and cool your wings
    Let me make it to the telephone
    Los Angeles!
    Give me Norfolk Virginia
    Tidewater four ten oh nine
    Tell the folks back home this is the promised land calling
    And the poor boy’s on the line!

  19. Most of the church service Rite 1 flows from memory at the appropriate moments but I couldn't begin to say it outside of church. Many of the hymns are mostly memorized but that part of my brain only works at church, apparently.

    The only poem I have publicly recited begins with, "There are strange things done in the midnight sun," but I can't say I've memorized it. I've tried to learn "Rosamunde" in German but the incentive really isn't there. Mox nix.

  20. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
    Ps 23 (KJV)
    The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

  21. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”


    "I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth."

    ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

  22. Stopping by woods on a snowy evening.

  23. "The Road Not Taken" has always had special meaning for me, causes me to choke up and a tear in my eye:

    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

    1. An interesting take on that poem:

  24. A silly one that I heard as a child:

    In the middle of the day one summer's night two dead brothers got up to fight.
    They faced each other back to back, drew their swords and shot each other,
    But a deaf policeman heard the noise and came to rescue the poor dead boys.

  25. "I like to have a martini, Two at the most, After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host." Dorothy Parker

  26. I have loved Haiku ever since I discovered it as a teenager and already loving a minimalistic and simple lifestyle. that set me apart from my peers. but it has treated me well and kept my monkey mind calm on some very turbulent seas.
    here is one I especially love from Matsuo Basho.

    Sitting quietly
    doing nothing
    Spring comes
    and the grass grows by itself.

  27. After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost in 6th Grade.

    Best Regards,


  28. The Charge of the Light Brigade

    Half a league, half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.
    “Forward, the Light Brigade!
    Charge for the guns!” he said.
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    “Forward, the Light Brigade!”
    Was there a man dismayed?
    Not though the soldier knew
    Someone had blundered.
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die.
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
    Volleyed and thundered;
    Stormed at with shot and shell,
    Boldly they rode and well,
    Into the jaws of Death,
    Into the mouth of hell
    Rode the six hundred.

    Flashed all their sabres bare,
    Flashed as they turned in air
    Sabring the gunners there,
    Charging an army, while
    All the world wondered.
    Plunged in the battery-smoke
    Right through the line they broke;
    Cossack and Russian
    Reeled from the sabre stroke
    Shattered and sundered.
    Then they rode back, but not
    Not the six hundred.

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon behind them
    Volleyed and thundered;
    Stormed at with shot and shell,
    While horse and hero fell.
    They that had fought so well
    Came through the jaws of Death,
    Back from the mouth of hell,
    All that was left of them,
    Left of six hundred.

    When can their glory fade?
    O the wild charge they made!
    All the world wondered.
    Honour the charge they made!
    Honour the Light Brigade,
    Noble six hundred!

  29. Psalm 23 (KJV), the Apostles' Creed (BCP 1662), and the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

  30. From the Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

    Farewell, farewell
    but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
    He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast.
    He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small;
    For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

  31. So, so, so many. With a father who recited poetry endlessly at the dinner table, we 3 siblings sponged it up. One in particular held his firmest lesson for us kids.

    -Edward Rowland Sill

    This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:
    There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
    And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
    A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
    Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince's banner
    Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.

    A craven hung along the battle's edge,
    And thought, "Had I a sword of keener steel —
    That blue blade that the king's son bears — but this
    Blunt thing!" He snapped and flung it from his hand,
    And lowering crept away and left the field.

    Then came the king's son, wounded sore bested,
    And weaponless, and saw the broken sword
    Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
    And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
    Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down
    And saved a great cause that heroic day.

  32. One more ultimate favorite.

    Tell Me A Story
    -Robert Penn Warren

    [ A ]

    Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood

    By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard

    The great geese hoot northward.

    I could not see them, there being no moon

    And the stars sparse. I heard them.

    I did not know what was happening in my heart.

    It was the season before the elderberry blooms,

    Therefore they were going north.

    The sound was passing northward.

    [ B ]

    Tell me a story.

    In this century, and moment, of mania,

    Tell me a story.

    Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

    The name of the story will be Time,

    But you must not pronounce its name.

    Tell me a story of deep delight.

  33. I am not sure if my choice is significant and I certainly haven't memorized it as I have never been able to memorize anything except The Lord's Prayer, but one poem that settles in my mind and recalls the imaginative and magical world of childhood which we as adults too easily forget is Eugene Field's Wynken, Blynken and Nod which starts:
    Wynken, Blyken and Nod one night
    Sailed off in a wooden shoe,--
    Sailed on a river of crystal light
    Into a sea of dew...
    "Where are you going and what do you wish?"
    the old moon asked the three
    We have come to fish for the herring fish
    That live in this beautiful sea.
    Nets of silver and gold have we
    Said Wynken, Blyken and Nod.

  34. Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
    As the swift seasons roll!
    Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
    Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
    Till thou at length art free,
    Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea! Chambered Nautilus Oliver Wendell Holmes

  35. Honor Men by James Hay. Any good 'Hoo prob has memorized it.

  36. 'Rime of The Ancient Mariner' for the annual public speaking requirement for all boys in my 'pre-prep' days at The Fenn School in Concord, Mass. in the sixties. It was a pretty terrifying thing to deliver a poem before the assembled schoolboys and faculty, one or more of us each day at assembly. But overall a good thing and one year I delivered my favorite short one by e.e cummings: "Buffalo Bill's". I believe the school still require it of all boys as well as an extemporaneous speech on a topic assigned shortly before delivery.

  37. The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
    Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
    Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
    Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

    And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs...
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

  38. And another regrettable thing about death
    is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
    which took a whole life to develop and market —
    the quips, the witticisms, the slant
    adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
    the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
    in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
    their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
    their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
    their response and your performance twinned.
    The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
    in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
    Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
    imitators and descendants aren't the same.

    Perfection Wasted, John Updike

  39. Snow by Anne Sexton. It closes with:

    There is hope
    There is hope everywhere
    Today god brings milk
    And I have the pail.

  40. If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

  41. Charles E. Carryl

    Robinson Crusoe's Story

    THE night was thick and hazy
    When the "Piccadilly Daisy"
    Carried down the crew and captain in the sea;
    And I think the water drowned 'em;
    For they never, never found 'em, 5
    And I know they didn't come ashore with me.

    Oh! 'twas very sad and lonely
    When I found myself the only
    Population on this cultivated shore;
    But I've made a little tavern 10
    In a rocky little cavern,
    And I sit and watch for people at the door.

    I spent no time in looking
    For a girl to do my cooking,
    As I'm quite a clever hand at making stews; 15
    But I had that fellow Friday,
    Just to keep the tavern tidy,
    And to put a Sunday polish on my shoes.

    I have a little garden
    That I'm cultivating lard in, 20
    As the things I eat are rather tough and dry;
    For I live on toasted lizards,
    Prickly pears, and parrot gizzards,
    And I'm really very fond of beetle-pie.

    The clothes I had were furry, 25
    And it made me fret and worry
    When I found the moths were eating off the hair;
    And I had to scrape and sand 'em,
    And I boiled 'em and I tanned 'em,
    Till I got the fine morocco suit I wear. 30

    I sometimes seek diversion
    In a family excursion
    With the few domestic animals you see;
    And we take along a carrot
    As refreshment for the parrot, 35
    And a little can of jungleberry tea.

    Then we gather as we travel,
    Bits of moss and dirty gravel,
    And we chip off little specimens of stone;
    And we carry home as prizes 40
    Funny bugs, of handy sizes,
    Just to give the day a scientific tone.

    If the roads are wet and muddy
    We remain at home and study,—
    For the Goat is very clever at a sum,— 45
    And the Dog, instead of fighting,
    Studies ornamental writing,
    While the Cat is taking lessons on the drum.

    We retire at eleven,
    And we rise again at seven; 50
    And I wish to call attention, as I close,
    To the fact that all the scholars
    Are correct about their collars,
    And particular in turning out their toes.

  42. Sea Fever, by John Masefield.

  43. Memorizing? More likely "mis-memorizing" in my case, however, there are plenty of snippets that aid me in moving from one experience to the next. In the days since this topic was posted, I've become aware of how much I communicate with myself through the imagery, symbols, and my undoubtedly faulty recall of others' words. While they are all meaningful to me, parts of The Kingdom I (I think) by Louis MacNeice emerged in response to recent events. Maybe someone who is a better researcher than I will find the full text online. (Must have donated my copy in one of many relocation purges.)

    Equal in difference, interchangeably sovereign [...]

    The pairs of hands that are peers of hearts, the eyes that marry with eyes [...]

    These, as being themselves, are apart from not each other
    But from such as being false are merely other,
    So these are apart as parts within a pattern
    Not merged nor yet excluded, members of a Kingdom
    Which has no king except each subject, therefore
    Apart from slaves and tyrants and from every
    Community of mere convenience; these are
    Apart from those who drift and those who force,
    Apart from partisan order and egotistical anarchy [...]

    These are humble and proud at once, working within
    their limits and yet transcending them. These are the
    people who vindicate the species. And they are many [...]

  44. By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled
    Embattled Farmers stood and fired, the shot heard 'round the world.

    The Concord Hymn, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

    The Concord Diaspora

  45. Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow and The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Loved reading these aloud with my students. I remember the "sound effects" the kids made to mimic horse hooves - tapping on desks with their fingertips. No technology needed.

  46. There are many poems, short and long, that I memorized at the boys' school I went to aeons ago, and some of them were done for recitation competitions on School Day or Old Boys' Day, and others, simply for class at the behest of the English Master. But the first poem that comes to mind is this elegiac beauty by Constantine (C.P.) Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, whom Lawrence Durrell quoted in his novel tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet. The poem is included at the end of the first novel, Justine. Here it is:

    The God Abandons Antony

    Translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven

    When suddenly at the midnight hour
    an invisible troupe is heard passing
    with exquisite music, with shouts––
    do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
    your works that have failed, the plans of your life
    that have all turned out to be illusions.
    As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
    bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving.
    Above all do not be fooled, do not tell yourself
    it was only a dream, that your ears deceived you;
    do not stoop to such vain hopes.
    As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
    as it becomes you who are worthy of such a city;
    approach the window with firm step,
    and listen with emotion, but not
    with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
    as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
    the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
    and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.

  47. The last paragraph of Lincoln‘s second inaugural address (“with malice toward none”) and the first page of two of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

  48. Two not so long poems. Dickinson says so much with so little:

    To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
    One clover, and a bee.
    And revery.
    The revery alone will do,
    If bees are few.

    And, I always get one word wrong, no matter how many times I check and repeat it to myself, but here it is anyway - Longfellow:

    The tide rises, the tide falls,
    The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
    Along the sea-sands damp and brown
    The traveller hastens toward the town,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
    But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
    The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
    Efface the footprints in the sands,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
    Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
    The day returns, but nevermore
    Returns the traveller to the shore,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.


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