My newest project over the past couple of weeks has been to memorize the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. I was watching, for perhaps the hundredth time, King Harry lift the flagging hearts of his countrymen before the Battle of Agincourt when it struck me: I could do that. I could rouse a bedraggled, overmatched and outnumbered army of Englishmen to fight the haughty French. Or, at the very least, rouse myself to shave bravely in the bathroom mirror: “We few, we happy few. We band of brothers . . .”
As a young man I could memorize poetry with the facility of a machine invented at IBM—I am reminded of those early, room-sized computers with the glowing vacuum tubes, attended by white-coated technicians holding clip-boards and taking readings. Once, when I was 22, a fellow at the lunch table bet me ten dollars I couldn’t memorize all 92 lines of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” by lunchtime the next day. Piece of cake. And I can still recite all 92.
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But my days of memorizing poetry with ease are gone. (Here’s a funny video I posted about middle-age memory loss.) It’s been a grueling (okay, kind of grueling) two weeks of watching and re-watching this clip of Kenneth Branagh playing King Harry until, with much moaning and creaking and stretching of reluctant mental sinews, I have at last committed the speech to what remains of my memory. I can’t remember where I left the TV clicker just now; but this I can say:
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day . . .
The English had to deal with the French; my youngest daughter Tory’s heroics have been no less noteworthy, for she has had to deal with me these past two weeks, during which time she hasn’t been able to pass me in the kitchen without hearing me do the king.
She (casually): “How about spaghetti for dinner?”
Me (suddenly alert, turning, planting my feet): “What’s he that wishes so?”
She: I was just thinking spaghetti might be good.
Me (with kingly resolve): This day is call’d the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day and comes safe home, will stand a-tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian.
She: Great. And a salad?
Me (shouting triumphantly): And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks, that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!
She: I’ll set the table.
She takes all this in stride, my poor daughter, whose father was encouraging her to memorize Yeats’s “No Second Troy” years before she had learned about the first one. Now it’s she who’s 22, and if she decided to memorize “Ode to a Nightingale” by lunchtime tomorrow, I would not bet against her.