There’s a lot about our world that is broken and needs to be fixed. If you’re a reader of The Free Press, you know that well. Part of the job—arguably the job—of good journalism is to expose that brokenness. It’s to shine a light in the dark places.
But I worry that by focusing so much on what isn’t working, we sometimes forget what is.
If ours is an era of building and rebuilding, what things are worth saving? What things are worth elevating? What things are worth remembering?
Those are the questions that generated the column I am thrilled to announce today: Things Worth Remembering.
In today’s hyperconnected age, when you can conjure up any fact or compute any problem on your smartphone, is there any point in memorizing lines from a poem written decades—or even centuries—ago? Douglas Murray believes that yes, it is crucial to our very existence.
Throughout his life, he has stored up many literary treasures in his head, which have given him hope and humor, courage and comfort. In short, the words he has committed to memory have brought meaning to his life.
So every Sunday for the next year, he’ll be right here to share one special passage—and the story of why it matters—with you.
And if you want to want to listen to Douglas read today’s piece, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, simply click below. —BW
Why commit anything—and poetry, of all things—to memory? Certain education specialists stress the synaptic advantages of learning lines by rote, especially when young, though that has been an unfashionable idea for some time. Fortunately, there is another reason, a better reason: a more human reason. Over the course of these short pieces I hope to be able to persuade you, the reader, that it is this reason above any other that counts. Poetry by heart is not just something you can swap out for sudoku.
Two foundational stories stick in my own mind. I will tell the second one next week, but I will start with an event that took place in Moscow in 1937.
That year’s annual Soviet writers’ congress took place in the worst time of the purges. At the major show trials in Moscow, people were confessing to things they could not possibly have done. Both the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the author Fitzroy Maclean, who observed these events, were credited with the line “I can believe everything except the facts.”
The people who got public show trials were comparatively lucky: at least the absurdity of the excuse for their murder was made public. Other people disappeared all the time with nothing heard of them again.
It was a dangerous time to be a private citizen, but an even worse time to be a public one. So the writers’ congress that year included a lot of very dull, regime-prescribed speeches praising the virtues of Leninist–Stalinism, Stalinist–Leninism, and so on. It was the sort of occasion to which all artists were subjected through that era: a ritual of forced humiliation. A way of getting everyone to collude in the world of lies.
Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous writers in the country. Though he had not yet completed Doctor Zhivago—the novel that would make him internationally famous—in that hall, that year, everybody knew him. And Pasternak faced a challenge. He could not speak, and he couldn’t not speak. Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria and his men were literally standing by the side of the stage. If Pasternak spoke, he could be disappeared. If he didn’t speak, he could be disappeared. So he stayed silent. It was on the third and final day of the conference that the writer’s friends persuaded him that the silence was madness. He had to speak. So finally, Pasternak got up to the lectern.
Everybody knew who he was, of course. He was tall, and strikingly handsome. As he pulled himself up to his full height he said not a word but a number. The number was “30.” As he said it, all two thousand writers in the hall got to their feet, and—with Pasternak—began to recite.
Thirty is the number of the Shakespeare sonnet beginning, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past.” Today the line may be best known for giving C. K. Scott Moncrieff the title for his English translation of Proust’s masterpiece about lost time. But the Russian writers in that hall all knew Pasternak had himself done a translation of the sonnet into Russian. It was already a classic. Those who know his translation say it is as beautiful as the original.
I first heard this story as a schoolboy from the polymath and scholar George Steiner. It is a deeply Steiner-esque story. Because if there was one thing that impressed him, and he impressed upon those of us who listened to him, it was the deep importance of memory. Steiner can be found online somewhere telling the story again. It was one of his favorites, and it had the advantage of being true.
Why did the story move him, and leave such an impression on me? First is the simple fact that this summoning-up of collective memory allowed Pasternak to leave the stage unharmed. But beyond that, what did it mean? What were the other people in the hall saying?
Steiner had an answer to that. 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.
That is why I always think of Pasternak, the writers in the hall, and those writers who didn’t make it through 1938 (poet Osip Mandelstam in particular), when I think of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30.
There are other sonnets by Shakespeare that live in full in my head. Depending on my frame of mind I often recite to myself sonnets 12, 29, and 116 in particular. But I have a special place for Sonnet 30, whenever I recite to myself these fourteen lines written four centuries ago.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.