In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
Decades later, I still remember it.
What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?
When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.
There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.
Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.
Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.
A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.
Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.
Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.
I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
and often is his gold complexion dimmed.
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade
when in eternal lines to time thou growest.
So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.
It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.