There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes
This is the first stanza of an Emily Dickinson poem that I learnt at school.
I was under the impression that I knew this poem off by heart, but it turns out that over the years one stanza had dropped from my mind and I didn’t even feel it fall out.
As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.
But even in it’s depleted state, I’ve enjoyed having something to quote on winter afternoons when the light slants through the clouds. (Every single time. My family might find it annoying, I’m not sure.)
But learning things “off by heart” is becoming something of a lost art.
Now that you can just Google it, there’s no need to ‘know’.
This doesn’t just apply to poetry; my doctor does it at every consultation. Heaven help us if there’s some sort of a global technological disaster and we are plunged back into a pre-Google age.
The emphasis (rightly in my opinion) in education now is more on learning where and how to find information, than on rote learning the information itself. There’s just too much of it to absorb these days, and it’s almost impossible to prioritise it.
In 2011, a study found that most of us took in five times as much information every day as we did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. During leisure time, not counting work, each of us processed 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words, every day.
That was seven years ago and I’d bet it’s dramatically escalated since then.
It’s nothing short of a bombardment, and only a tiny percentage of it could possibly be retained. Even the bits you want to keep are getting harder to fit into our overworked brains.
But I would still argue the case for learning at least a few beautiful things by heart. There is no other way to lodge them in your soul and make them part of you.
Even if its incomplete and faulty, our memories make us ourselves. Put something good in it.