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· A Lost Eloquence ·

An op-ed piece in The New York Times prompts my post. A creative writing teacher makes a case for our memorizing and reciting poetry in public school. What has attracted me to her piece, "A Lost Eloquence," is the example Carol Muske-Dukes makes of her own mother, "who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson." She writes:

She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) "quote." Poems are still memorized in some classrooms but not "put to heart" in a way that would prompt this more quotidian public expression.

Muske-Dukes' recollection has put me in mind of my own father's example. Though he didn't get a high school education "on the prairie of North Dakota during the Great Depression," he did get, on the prairie in Alberta during World War I, schooling enough to make an elementary difference. I recall with delight his reciting Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal" over his morning breakfast — this when his short-term memory from multi-infarct dementia was nil. During his last three years with us (till 88) Dad "quoted" just enough to make a good case for Muske-Dukes' larger implication, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Quotation and Originality":

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.

Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Wm. H. Wise, 1929, 781.

Of course, Carol Muske-Dukes recommends here what Emerson only observes, that, indeed, "we all quote."


Some for renown on scraps of learning dote,
And think they grow immortal as they quote.

Posted by
language hat on January 5, 2003 05:52 PM

'Tis fine my Pop's wisdom has passed your eyes,
And Pope's wit, thus unmarked, is here plagiarized.

Posted by Styles on January 6, 2003 11:18 AM

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