James Bishop Jr.’s EPITAPH FOR A DESERT ANARCHIST: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey (1994), describes Abbey’s early years spent in eclectic primary school and family education involved in the literature of the day and nature exploration of the surrounding environs. Together, they developed Edward Abbey’s appreciation for nature and natural writing he demonstrates in THE DESERT SOLITARE earning the informal title of the “Thoreau of the West.”
One of Abby’s lifelong treasure was a portion of Walt Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS that Edward learned from his father and could recite by memory:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
This got be thinking what can people, including me, recite by memory today? More importantly, do we even try to select a prize poem or verse and raise it to the esteem the warrants committing it to memory? I suppose the availability of pop music reduced the glamor of classic verse and the internet made memorization not essential.
As late as the 1980s students in Indiana were expected to commit verses of James Whitcome Riley “The frost is on the pumpkin” to memory. I know of no similar requirement similar for Missouri students in 2017.
As for me, I can recite the Eight Beatitudes from my early Catholic education and I can recall short small passages from several presidential speeches or writings such as those affixed to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. However, I don’t have a repertoire of verse appropriate for any occasion.
The closest I have to a memorized verse that I carry with me in my head for inspiration and reassurance is Rabindra Tagore’s GITIANJI that I discovered in Jawaharla Nehru’s GLIMPSES OF WORLD HISTORY while teaching in South Korea in 2009.
Mind Without Fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.