Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cheap parlor tricks

[Committed to memory, with the hope it would time-release into folds of my conscience … ahem]
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place for those who died here, that that nation might live. This we may in all propriety do.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have hallowed it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, while it cannot forget what they did here.

Rather, it is for us, the living — we here: Be dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. And that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
[Ta da.]

President Lincoln presented these words 150 years ago today. Some variation of these words, anyway. At least six versions exist. I memorized one attributed to John George Nicolay, Lincoln's personal secretary, for no other reason than I could, as my own captain of history.

No one is to say, of course, which version Lincoln truly spoke. The punctuation is mine, and a few of the words may be off: A this for the, perhaps.

It struck me Nicolay might have the version that hews closest, the version last worked over by Lincoln's pen, with Nicolay as his last test audience; it struck me too, in my limited knowledge of the subject, that these words sound more like dialogue, a dictation of what was said rather than what others, including Lincoln, might have hoped to hear.

I memorized it just to do so, because the words were sweet and full but foreign, because in doing so I learned more about why Lincoln gathered and arranged these words to say, gathered and arranged them for certain detonations of meaning.

(Here is an interactive deconstruction of the words, with two history professors describing the world behind them. Try, if you may, to read Garry Wills' book Lincoln at Gettysburg, such a thorough analysis of that world. In my hillbilly logic I scoffed at how a book could be made from a speech some 300 words long. Wills' book is so full, it turned out, I had trouble learning from it, felt I was suddenly incapable of learning anything, suffocating under the torrent of scholarship.)

No one hears me recite Lincoln's words except our dog, who must put up with it from time to time on morning walks, if she's paying attention at all. If she was, she has heard it more frequently in the last few days. No one else is going to hear them, either, unless one day I'm in public somewhere and someone calls out, "Quick, does anybody know the Gettysburg Address?" Hasn't happened.

I'm nowhere near the first, of course, to point out that people do remember what he said there and have forgotten what they did there in Gettysburg — that Confederate forces had not expected to engage in this crossroads town but did so with superior tactics, until the Union somehow used topography and technique to drive Confederate forces back. More than 50,000 died in that battle, said to have turned the Civil War to the Union's favor, and kept the United States intact.

"Four score and seven years ago," strikes us strangely; maybe we don't know where it comes from, but we know the words. Gettysburg is a battle in a war long ago; the North won.

I also memorized some of the words Shakespeare breathed into Henry V as the king rallied his  outnumbered English soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt against France. I remembered them for all the wrong reasons, trying to impose a brand among the Boy Scout Troop when I was Scoutmaster. I wanted them to think of themselves as a band of brothers.

But you can't impose esprit de corps on a group; it must arise from those who share in the group. And if one does try to impose unity, for god's sake don't use words meant to stir men into grievous battle … unless you're going into battle. These kids were backpacking.

Still I tried. I even fashioned a convoluted Scoutmaster's Minute (supposed to be a short moment of reflection at the end of a Troop meeting, emphasis on minute; mine were nothing if not overwrought, and never shorter than three minutes; poor Scouts …) which concluded with these words:
This story shall the good man teach his son: And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remember'ed. We few — we happy few — we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. Be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day.
I spoke it with all the drama I could dredge, fairly shouting into the night — we met outdoors in summer — "to the ending of the WORLD!" Some of the Scouts' eyes got big with surprise or shock that I dared be such a dork. What an embarrassment I was many times. Well meaning, but an embarrassment.

Still, the words remain with me.  The dog doesn't hear them as much.

I heard actor Peter O'Toole say once that he had memorized all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets, that they are his constant and comforting companion. As a Gold Rush tour guide I have memorized spiels, even lengthy ones of my own devising, and quote from Mark Twain — but those feats are absolutely nothing compared to the work of actors I know, who made the majority of the first corps of tour guides I belonged to. When I can I go to their plays, amazed at what they have fit into their heads and hearts, spilling it onto the stage.

People I know from one and two generations back seem as children to have learned many passages from memory — The Song of Hiawatha, say, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The practice escaped my generation, or I was taking experimental history and English classes when others were getting the basics and the classics.

I recommend it, though. Memorize something; let your brain go through the try-and-fail-and-try-again process of committing a lengthy stretch of words to memory. Give your brain something extra to do. As names of public figures more and more slip my memory even as I see their faces — as I enter and exit rooms more than once without remembering what I was to do there — I know it couldn't hurt me.

Maybe the words will trickle into your heart and be your constant and comforting companion.

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