Hi, all. Bari here.
One year ago, we launched Douglas Murray’s column Things Worth Remembering, about the great poems he has committed to memory.
The idea behind the column was simple: we focus a lot in these pages on what’s broken. Part of the job—arguably the job—of good journalism is to expose that brokenness so that it can be fixed.
But there are also things in this world that work beautifully, still. Things worth saving, elevating, treasuring, and remembering.
I have always loved Douglas’s mind and I knew he would find enthusiastic readers. But this was old poetry—not exactly a subject for mass appeal. So I managed my expectations.
How wrong I was. Your response to his column was absolutely overwhelming.
A few notes from the scores we received:
Bruce Miller wrote: “Thank you, Douglas, for making a Sunday morning a bit sweeter, more beautiful, and evoking the memories, loves, losses, and possibilities of a lifetime.”
JT told us: “When we memorize great literature, as Douglas suggests, we afford ourselves the opportunity to grow with it, to have different meanings and understandings unlocked over time. With any luck, such growth helps us avoid having life become a mere walking shadow.”
Meanwhile, Margaret simply said: “Douglas is my church!”
Over the past year, Douglas has shared with us some of the greatest poems (or stanzas of poems) ever written—from Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” to John Donne’s “The Anniversary” to Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang” to Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” to Ted Hughes’ translation of Euripides’ “Alcestis,” and on and on.
But my favorite of all of Douglas’s essays was his very first.
Things Worth Remembering opened, you may recall, with Douglas’s piece on the great Soviet writer Boris Pasternak and his translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.
In 1937, at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges, Pasternak, like the other leading lights of the Soviet literary world, was at the annual writers’ congress in Moscow. Pasternak knew that he had to say something about the purges taking place all around him, but he also couldn’t say anything: Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, was literally standing right there, by the stage.
So, Pasternak took to the stage and declared simply the single word “Thirty.” The crowd started to recite, along with Pasternak, his translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30—in which Shakespeare recalls an earlier stage of his life. Happier times. It was a subtle, but very powerful, reminder to everyone in the room that things had once been better—and that things could be better once again. It was a protest in the form of a poem.
Here’s how Douglas explained it:
Among much else the message is that what you have up here, in your head, the bastards cannot take. They can rob you, arrest you, disappear you, perhaps even kill you. Perhaps they can kill almost everyone, or at least make a very good try. But they cannot take a memory once it is embedded like this. They cannot take the Russian language, or the English language. They cannot take Shakespeare, just as they cannot take Pasternak. They may be able to take many writers—and they did. But they cannot take us all. So long as we carry what we have up here—so long as we furnish our heads with the important things—nothing important can truly die.
In other words, this project is not, in the end, about brain-building or some old-fashioned commitment to long-dead bards. It is about freedom. When you memorize the thoughts and philosophical insights of the greatest artists who ever lived, those things live on.
A year since Douglas wrote those words, that freedom is under grave threat, including to Douglas personally. But in every way, he has lived up to Pasternak’s example.
All of this is why we are thrilled to announce Things Worth Remembering: Year Two. This year not poetry, but great oratory of the ages.
We may not have a Churchill on the scene. But that doesn’t mean we can’t read him.
We’ll be back next week with that. If you haven’t subscribed, today is the day.
And last but not least: here’s Douglas’s final poetry column, in which he once again returns to Shakespeare. To listen to him read Prospero’s farewell address in The Tempest, scroll to the end of this piece. —BW
I started with Shakespeare—or, at least, Boris Pasternak’s translation of him—and so, perhaps, it is inevitable that I should finish with him.
One of the things about the Soviet poet translating the great English poet that I found so powerful was the conversation that seemed to be taking place—across place and time.
I first encountered this conversation when I was a schoolboy. It happened one afternoon, when one of my teachers said something in passing about one of the relatively obscure poets of the 1890s, Lionel Johnson.
“Did you know that Ezra Pound was a great admirer of Lionel Johnson?” he said. “I just learned that the other day.”
Then, he paused and said, “There’s so much to know.”