I got home today and finally checked voicemail. There was a message from my 90-year-old Aunt Helen. She made no small talk, didn’t say hello or who it was. Instead, she launched into her recitation of a favorite family poem, If. I put her on speaker and listened as she spoke from memory:
“If you can keep your head, when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself, when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;”
She continued to the very end, but for the last line, instead of man, she substituted woman.
“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a woman!”
I smiled and my heart warmed. Linked by our Irish history and family gatherings of storytelling and poetry exchanges, we both appreciated this heart felt truth of Rudyard Kipling.
His poem has survived hundreds of years for a reason. And my aunt is giving me more than just the wisdom of the poem. She is reminding me of her mother and her mother’s mother, and she’s bringing me back to kitchen table of her childhood in Jamaica Plain. I don’t have to spend childhood with her, the poem takes me there.
I can remember my grandmother whose memory failed her at 92, reciting the poem perfectly with a “Newfie” brogue. The poem in its rhythm and poignancy had found a permanent place in her mind when others things could not.
Shakespeare, Kipling, and many more can elevate our senses, elevate our language, and take us out of the sometimes superficial crassness of 21st century life.
Language has shifted since the classics—we’ve gone from paragraph-long sentences to short repetitive simplicity. It’s faster, more economical, but coarser, sometimes baser.
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven
upon the place beneath…”
In a few words, Shakespeare has shown and transmitted, the meaning of mercy and its connection to heaven. By repeating this verse out loud, we are a little closer to mercy itself.
Ken Ludwig in his book, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare shows us how and why to teach children passages from Shakespeare. If we can understand Shakespeare, we can appreciate Jane Austen, the Godfather, so many modern stories. The characters in Shakespeare he writes have formed the “archetypes of our consciousness.”
I use Shakespeare in my classes sometimes to help people get a foundation for English and I write about this in my book. (link)
Just like fu— sh- have an effect on your being (and everyone around you) so do sonnets.
I have experienced my classes go from a group of misbehaving bored introverts to a connected coherent group of adults who are raising their level of English quickly, gaining self confidence, and connecting to the human part of each other. All this in a matter of weeks.
And since Shakespeare was writing and acting for the Common Man and not the elite, there’s no need to think it’s pretentious.
So go forth and multiply Shakespeare or any of your favorite classics—in your car, in your class, at the dinner table.