“We learn words by rote, but not their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves.” — George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil”
It strikes me as odd that when the topic of memorization arises in conversation someone will still seize the occasion to deplore the mindlessness of rote learning, perhaps as a prelude to a few reverential comments on the value of “creativity.” Odd, because students seem to learn very little by rote any more. A quick survey in a college English class will often reveal that very few students have been required to memorize poems or passages or great speeches. Those who know the Gettysburg Address, the preamble to the Constitution, or Hamlet’s soliloquy (what’s a soliloquy? Who’s Hamlet?) are increasingly rare. And very few people I know under the age of 50 have suffered what they presume to be the indignities of a catechism.
On the other hand, most of them have been encouraged to believe that they are “creative.” An unhappy few (whom I have encountered occasionally in office hours) have such stalwart faith in their own creativity, they have a hard time with the suggestion that a poem they wrote in a rush of powerful feeling might benefit from a little syntactical rearrangement. The fallacy of creativity, a popular dogma of our time, has it that whatever is sincere, whatever is spontaneous, whatever requires large daubs of paint, swathes of color, or oddly shaped configurations of words is to be revered for its uniqueness, independent of its thought content or its capacity to surprise a viewer or reader into thought or feeling of her own.
The “payment” Eliot alludes to in the sentences above, the expenditure of “lifeblood,” can take place only in the process of living with words, tugging at them, allowing them access to the most intimate place of inchoate feeling, allowing them the power to change us. We do this by pausing over them, looking up their etymologies, considering what feelings they evoke, knowing them in context.
Much of the felt meaning of a word resides in the contexts in which we first heard it — or have heard it most consistently repeated. Consider, for instance, how the word “equal,” over its long, embattled history, still clings to its roots in Jefferson’s acknowledgement “that all men are created equal,” has been tarnished by insistence that schools be “separate but equal,” and raised as a banner in the fight for equal pay and marriage equality. Or how words like “mindfulness,” and “compassion” invite and guide and encourage the states they name, and swell the rich confluence of spiritual traditions.
Meaning is not the province of the dictionary, but moves among us and within us on the wings of words that, though they alight now and then, also glide and soar and dip and dive. Words move with the meanings they carry, muscular and sure as hawks who hover, surprising their prey, stable in the passing air, but never static. If we live with words wisely, we live with them watchfully, noticing how nuances shift, how some words become diminished by captivity and need to be set free, how some retain almost magical power to call the reluctant to attention, how some can be reclaimed from antiquity when we need them for new purposes: “honor,” for example, or “courtesy” or “inwit” — a medieval word for conscience that I love for the way it seems to link moral sensibility to a certain private, sidelong capacity for humor.
Learning words by heart keeps our hearts full and ready. We take them in and store them for safekeeping, for seasons of need, for conversations we must come to with all available resources now, at a time when words, like the soil, have suffered from overuse and the poisons of propaganda. Let us take them in, by heart— harbor them and cherish them until, like broken-winged creatures, they can be let loose, loved and healed, and fly.