Trying to Memorize an Abominable Poem

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, March 5, 1912: I’m trying to commit that abominable piece of poetry to memory and it’s no easy task either, although it is short in the extreme. I only hope I know it, when the time comes to say it.

A hundred years ago Grandma was sitting inside this house trying to memorize an abominable poem.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

What could the abominable poem have been?  A hundred years ago people memorized recitations, poems, and Bible verses more than they do today.

Grandma generally did not complain about needing to memorize something. For example, one Sunday she memorized  27 Bible verses. This poem must have had some very difficult text (a dialect perhaps??).

The Poem of Quotes website provides information about lots of 18th and 19th century poets and poems.  I browsed through it, but am not familiar enough with old poetry to even guess which poem Grandma was trying to memorize.

11 Responses

  1. What a lovely mystery. Now I’m curious!

    This also threw me back to my school days when I had to memorize poems and the anxiety it brought.

    • Poems also gave me anxiety. I’m not sure whether I was primarily anxious about the memorization–or worried about needing to stand up in front of the class to recite it. I guess it was both. I worried a lot that I’d look foolish if I forgot some of the lines.

  2. I guess it wasn’t “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” or “The Village Smithy” which seemed to be the poems of choice when I was in Junior high school. wish she’d named it!

    • I can remember memorizing Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost when I was a child. However, it’s from a later time period than this diary so I’m sure it’s not what Grandma memorized.

  3. I love this phrase: “abominable piece of poetry” – enough said. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

  4. Recent studies have indicated that the act of memorization is good for the brain, and helps children to learn to focus. Something that we seem to have forgotten along the way.

    BTW, one of the first poems that I memorized was “Old Ironsides.”. An odd poem to have such a history in my family — My mother, grandmother and I all presented it at some sort of competition in middle or high school. And I presented it at my mother’s funeral — seemed appropriate.

    • What a wonderful memory! It’s amazing how poetry can connect us on so many levels. I just found and read “Old Ironsides.” I’d forgotten how many layers of meaning it had. Thanks for encouraging me to re-engage with a little of the old poetry.

      I find the recent brain research absolutely fascinating.

  5. [...] Grandma had a lot on her plate when she wrote this entry. Her February grades were lower than she’d hoped so she wanted to do better on the upcoming exams—and she was struggling to memorize an “abominable piece of poetry.” [...]

  6. EQUIPMENT
    by Edgar A. Guest

    Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
    You’ve all that the greatest of men have had,
    Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes
    And a brain to use if you would be wise.
    With this equipment they all began,
    So start for the top and say, “I can.”

    Look them over, the wise and great
    They take their food from a common plate,
    And similar knives and forks they use,
    With similar laces they tie their shoes.
    The world considers them brave and smart,
    But you’ve all they had when they made their start.

    You can triumph and come to skill,
    You can be great if you only will.
    You’re well equipped for what fight you choose,
    You have legs and arms and a brain to use,
    And the man who has risen great deeds to do
    Began his life with no more than you.

    You are the handicap you must face,
    You are the one who must choose your place,
    You must say where you want to go,
    How much you will study the truth to know.
    God has equipped you for life, but He
    Lets you decide what you want to be.

    Courage must come from the soul within,
    The man must furnish the will to win.
    So figure it out for yourself, my lad.
    You were born with all that the great have had,
    With your equipment they all began,
    Get hold of yourself and say: “I can.”

    I learned this when I was in 4th grade

    • Whew, I’m amazed that you had to memorize this in 4th grade. The poem has a nice message, but it must have been an abominable poem to memorize.

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