Favorite memorized literary quotations?
August 1, 2006 2:39 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite literary passages that you've memorized?

I've recently taken to trying to commit to memory a few lines of my favorite works here and there. It feels it should be a small and rewarding exercise compared to the relatively large number of song lyrics and movie quotations rattling around upstairs.

So, party tricks, battle cries, or tests of your foreign language skills -- I'd like to hear what quotes you have under your belt, and whatever anecdotes you have from knowing them.
posted by sixacross to Writing & Language (113 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Apart from the Wordsworth and Shakespeare that is still ingrained in me from high school memorization exercises, I can reel off Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse". It's a hit at dinner parties and easy to just throw into conversation.
posted by meerkatty at 3:13 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I once learnt - but have probably largely forgotten by now - Poe's Raven, Spleen by Baudelaire (since he has a few, it's the one that starts "Quand le ciel bas et lourd...") and the "Prolog im Himmel" from Goethe's Faust. I did this while working as a checkout operator at a supermarket.

Other than that I know (though again, incompletely by now) the "Madeleine extract" from Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (starting with "Mais, quand d'un passé rien ne subsiste..." to "tout [...] est sorti, villes et jardins, de ma tasse de thé.") and most of Mephisto's dialogue from Faust I. These are just know from being obsessed and reading repeatedly.

I'm sure there's more small quotes I know from other works (I'm an English lit graduate), but these are the only substantial ones.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 3:14 AM on August 1, 2006


Does poetry count? I have, for 40 years had "Waiting for the Birdie" by Ogden Nash memorized, after my mother taught it to me in a (very humorous) 'dramatic' rendition when I was 12 or so years old. To this day I can recite it line for line.

I can sing the Chorale from Beethoven's 9th in German, although I'd bet most people really wouldn't want to hear me do it :)

I have a smattering of Russian memorized, from having a roomie who was a Russian linguist, including a little bit of 'Anna Karenina'. Not useful, really, but still interesting to me.
posted by pjern at 3:20 AM on August 1, 2006

"The Raven", "Annabel Lee", "Jabberwocky", various Shakespearean speeches, a few bits of Goethe's Faust and several paragraphs of Pushkin's "Evgeny Onegin".


O sähst du, voller Mondenschein,
Zum letzenmal auf meine Pein,
Den ich so manche Mitternacht
An diesem Pult herangewacht:

«Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же черт возьмет тебя!»

I find it's oddly centering to recite some of these to onesself during times of stress. I recall that the Inspector character in "The Exorcist" also did this (with "Jabberwocky" no less).
posted by RavinDave at 3:23 AM on August 1, 2006

poetry: "Whoso List To Hunt" by Sir Thomas Wyatt, "Ozymandias" by PB Shelly and fragments of a number of Shakespeare's sonnets.

And my all-time favorite: 'Het is gezien, het is niet onopgemerkt gebleven.'

posted by swordfishtrombones at 3:42 AM on August 1, 2006

Oh, yeah ... "Ancient Music" by Ezra Pound is a favorite during winter time. I find myself reciting it while shivering in my cloth coat and trudging through frozen slop on the way to the bus station.
posted by RavinDave at 3:47 AM on August 1, 2006

Bits of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner have always stuck in my head, without any active attempt to memorise them, also this, from Christabel:
“In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;
    But vainly thou warrest,
        For this is alone in
    Thy power to declare,
        That in the dim forest
    Thou heard’st a low moaning,
And found’st a bright lady, surpassingly fair;
And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,
To shield her and shelter her from the damp air.”
posted by misteraitch at 3:54 AM on August 1, 2006

The lines "Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað." from the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Battle of Maldon". That's been translated a number of ways- the translation I linked renders it "Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener, mind must be the greater, while our strength lessens."

For various personal reasons, I was very moved by those lines when I first read them, enough so that I spent some time learning Old English pronunciation so I could recite them properly. Seconding RavinDave's observation, I find it to be a perfect mantra for times of stress.
posted by a louis wain cat at 3:56 AM on August 1, 2006

Oh, another one: Herbsttag by Rilke.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 3:56 AM on August 1, 2006

Most of Philip Larkin's book The Whitsun Weddings. Any line of any scene of plays I've been in, such as Macbeth, Our Town, The Fantasticks (I played Lady Macbeth, Emily and El Gallo, respectively, so most of those). Entire Catholic masses in French. Wordsworth's Ode. MacLeish's Ars Poetica. Roethke's I Knew a Woman.

On the other hand, I can't remember my mother's birthday.
posted by methylsalicylate at 3:58 AM on August 1, 2006

OK, a final one that popped up and then I'll stop: "hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan hinase hic enda thu wat unbidan we nu", apparently the first ever recorded line in old Dutch. ("All birds have begun making a nest, expect you and I. What are we waiting for?")
posted by swordfishtrombones at 4:00 AM on August 1, 2006

"Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
-The Death of the Hired Hand (poem) by Robert Frost

I just always thought this was the grounding truth, the very definition of "family" in an American sense.

"... If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack."
-Sir John Falstaff in King Henry IV Part 2, by Shakespeare

One of my earliest "literary" memories is of watching Orson Welles fill a bit of time at the end of some live television production, where he came on stage as himself, and sat down at a makeup table, talking in 3/4 profile to the camera about his favorite Shakespearean character, Sir John Falstaff. And as he described Falstaff, he was making himself up as Falstaff, until at the end he was Falstaff, and stood to give the little demi-monologue about sherry, of which this is the last line. Truly an amazing 10 minutes of black and white television, which he expanded and filmed as the 1965 "Chimes at Midnight." But that single 15 minutes of television forever made me interested in Shakespeare, and broke down any barriers of effort I might have otherwise found in Shakespeare, had I not seen that. Having seen Welles transform, I felt I knew Falstaff, and that if Welles could find such humanity in Shakespeare, then Shakespeare must hold important meaning for me. Welles made me want to read Shakespeare, in much the same way Leonard Bernstein's televised Young People's Concerts communicated Bernstein's great love of orchestral music, and made me want to listen and learn about classical music. I am so sorry for today's children that such things are not televised these days.

There never was, and for my money, will never be a better Falstaff than Welles.
posted by paulsc at 4:01 AM on August 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Curiously, The Raven as well.

I was reciting it in my head during an oxygen-deprivation experiment and it was an excellent barometer to how reduced oxygen affects mental ability.
posted by quiet at 4:07 AM on August 1, 2006

I had to memorize the first chapter of the of the Hojoki. I still remember it and it is useful for impressing Japanese people and spicing up speeches.

Also, in high school we memorized tons of Shakespeare, but I only remember a bit of Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
posted by Alison at 4:08 AM on August 1, 2006

"o purple finch," e.e. cummings

The "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" bit and the weird sisters opening ("double double toil and trouble...") from Macbeth.

The "to be or not to be" Hamlet simper

The Mexican version of "eeny-meenie-miney-moe" ("de tin marin de dopin guey, cucara macara titere fue...")

"The Raven," Poe

all forced in school except the Mexican one I learned in Mexico and am still stoked to know.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:13 AM on August 1, 2006

I've tried to memorise Kubla Khan (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), but to no avail - I can only remember the last four lines:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

I doubt most of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy counts, but I can do that!
posted by prettypretty at 4:17 AM on August 1, 2006

I used to be able to do Kubla Khan and the "to be or not to be" speech, but I seem to have forgotten the ends of both. A bit annoying, that.
posted by reklaw at 4:35 AM on August 1, 2006

"Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath." Ulysses
posted by milarepa at 4:38 AM on August 1, 2006

Other than Shakespeare (several sonnets and soliloquies), I know some of the Romantics -- a poem or two each of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Also, a little Donne, Tennyson, Hopkins, Frost, Williams, etc. The usual suspects. I recite them in the shower and on walks by myself. I think them silently on the bus.

My advice, if you've "recently taken to trying to commit to memory a few lines of [your] favorite works," is to write out poems in a pocket-sized notebook and to always carry it to refer to when you forget a line. Work on the poems in your notebook one by one -- don't add anything new to it until you've memorized what's already in it. Eventually, you'll have memorized a notebook of poetry.

(And now that we're all here: does anyone know a good pocket-sized edition of Shakespeare? I want a durable, hardback edition I can use for the rest of my life, but small, compact, perhaps one play per volume, so I can slip one into my pocket or pack.)
posted by pracowity at 4:40 AM on August 1, 2006

Millions of lines from Douglas Adams (mostly Hitchhiker).

"Disobedience" by A.A. Milne, though that's just from reciting it so often as a child and I probably get some lines wrong now.

A little T.S. Elliot (mostly Lovesong), Sylvia Plath, Dennis Lee (mostly his kids' stuff). I probably have volumes of stuff memorized, but since they're all in quotable one or two line segments, I don't remember I know them until something reminds me of them.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:46 AM on August 1, 2006

I memorised Elizabeth Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..." sonnet during a boring delay on the Tube. It feels like one that'd be handy (if cheesy) to whip out at some opportune moment.
posted by chrismear at 4:47 AM on August 1, 2006

"If only it were that simple! If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil runs through every the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

From Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:12 AM on August 1, 2006 [4 favorites]

My mother taught me Shelley's Ozymandias when I was eight or so, and I still recite it to myself sometimes when I'm alone at the bus stop. I used to have many such set pieces to entertain myself with when bored (Eliot's Prufrock was another favourite; I memorised that in highschool), but I've now forgotten almost all of them, alas.
posted by hot soup girl at 5:14 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

" 'twas brillig, and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogroves,
and momeraths outgrabe.

The only part of Jabberwocky that I can remember, but great fun when said in a silly voice (e.g. emphasising/extending the last syllables on each line) - some of the words are entertaining to use in a normal conversation, too... which then gives you an opening to quote the poem.
posted by Chunder at 5:19 AM on August 1, 2006

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats, 1920 and seemingly always more relevant.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:28 AM on August 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Being a life-long fan of the Anne of Green Gables (1985 TV) miniseries, I memorized the first few stanzas of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and Noyes' The Highwayman, even setting the latter to music before I realized that it had already been done.
posted by The Confessor at 5:29 AM on August 1, 2006

'You are old, Father William, the young man said,
And your hair has become very white,
But yet you incessantly stand on your head,
Do you think, at your age, this is right'?

From Alice in Wonderland, and it reminds me to be irreverent if I've forgotten how.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:32 AM on August 1, 2006

O, happy day! How wonderful to hear that "a louis wain cat" mentioned the Battle of Mauldin and my favorite verse from it! Oxford Anthology of English Literature has the translation 'Heart must be braver, courage the bolder, mood the stouter, as our strength grows less. ' I used to keep a copy of this near at all times and remind myself that my days weren't as bad as they seemed, sometimes.

In the same volume, the poem, "The Wanderer" has many lines that I can recall in piecemeal, but that shyness prevents me from butchering with my spotty recollections. It's about the mourning of the passing of earthly things and the importance of community, the loneliness of the individual, and the search for meaning. Extremely powerful.

Robert Burns, of course. 'The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley and leave us nought but pain for promised joy' from 'To a mouse', and several lines from 'To a louse'.

Robert Frost... too many to count. Ditto Shakespeare.

Good question.
posted by FauxScot at 5:33 AM on August 1, 2006

I've also got Ozymandias, a couple of Shakespearean sonnetts, parts of the Aeneid in Latin, and my favorite passage The Sound and the Fury -- part 2 (Quentin), from

"When I was little there was a picture in one of our books, a dark place into which a single weak ray of light came slanting upon two faces lifted out of the shadow"

"I am not afraid only Mother Father Caddy Jason Maury getting so far ahead sleeping I will sleep fast when I door Door door"

posted by jweed at 5:33 AM on August 1, 2006

posted by jweed at 5:34 AM on August 1, 2006

Me, I like to get drunk and fire in a bit of Hamlet, (Or Withnail & I - depending on your frame of reference.):

Hamlet: I have of late--but wherefore I know not-- lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire-- why it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of the animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me-- no, nor women either, though by your smiling you seem to say so."
posted by Jofus at 5:35 AM on August 1, 2006

My Galley Charged With Forgetfulness, by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

I had to memorize a poem for high school English. I picked this one, having liked it a lot already, and subsequently have not forgotten it.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:36 AM on August 1, 2006

"Von Zeit zu Zeit seh ich den Alten gern
Und hüte mich, mit ihm zu brechen.
Es ist gar hübsch von einem großen Herrn,
so menschlich mit dem Teufel selbst zu sprechen."
-Mephistopheles, in Goethe's Faust

The biting irony of this passage , in which the devil, admits his pleasure in speaking with God, has always stuck with me, if only as a pithy demonstration of how much the Almighty and Lucifer actually need each other, regardless of the rhetoric each may spout concerning the depth of their emnity...
posted by Chrischris at 5:42 AM on August 1, 2006

The only two poems I know off by heart are "Ozymandias" and "Kung Fu Internationale" by John Cooper Clarke. I dread to think what that means about me.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:54 AM on August 1, 2006

i had this bit from slaughterhouse-five memorized a while ago, but not any more:

"American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

"The formation then flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.

"The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again and made everything and everybody as good as new.

"When the bombers got back to their base, the steel containers were taken from their racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mostly women who did this work.

"The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:54 AM on August 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Most of the poetry here.
posted by pasici at 5:57 AM on August 1, 2006

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
who never to himself hath said, "'Tis my own, my native land"
Whose heart hath ne'er with in him burned when wandering in a foreign strand
If such there be, go, mark him well
Despite his titles, power and pelf
the wretch, concentered all in self,
Living shall forfeit fair renown and doubly dying
shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
Man Without a Country

I won't vouch for the accuracy, but it's been 45 years, and honestly, you'd be surprised how infrequently this comes up in conversation.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:14 AM on August 1, 2006

"Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening", Frost.

Memorized for school, retained because.
posted by inigo2 at 6:17 AM on August 1, 2006

stephen crane's poems are short and unique enough that even my insufficient-for-most-tasks memory can keep ahold of at least a half-dozen.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter – bitter", he answered,
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

is well enough referenced anytime someone says the word 'bitter.' (or perhaps if you ever happen to talk about liking anything.)
posted by soma lkzx at 6:28 AM on August 1, 2006 [5 favorites]

En Franglais, the poem Speak White, by Michèle Lalonde.

It sounds beautiful even if you don't understand it, but the message is very, very nice.

Oh, and parts of the Little Prince. I won't pick out any certain ones for you because it depends on what you want/got out of the book...

And bits of Jose Saramago's As Intermitências da Morte. Also another one where you have to pick and choose depending on the occasion.
posted by whatzit at 6:29 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I read The Outsiders when I was 11 and it made an impression, thus I memorized Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost.
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Stay gold, Ponyboy, Stay gold.
posted by jodic at 6:31 AM on August 1, 2006

Always forgetting things:

Have you considered some classic Chinese poetry? I mean the old guys, like Liu Yong1 or Zhang Ji2? The translations are of varying... quality and interpretation, but often mix being pointed and being subtle. Most of the poems are rather short. (The footnotes are to a couple favorite lines, below.)

And I love soma lkzx's suggestion, as well. I've only ever managed to remember the last three llines though!

1 To whom shall I speak
of this ever enchanting landscape?

2 Returning your lustrous pearls with tears in my eyes
Lord, I should've met you before I married.
posted by whatzit at 6:34 AM on August 1, 2006

It's a total sellout middle-aged hipster trait, but I have a habit of spouting Kerouac at parties, specifically:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”

Several of his shorter haiku are fun too:

"Early morning with the
happy dogs--
I forgot the Path"
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:48 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

This above all, to thine own self be true. --Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet.
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:48 AM on August 1, 2006

I've found the fact that I have the first bit of Hitchhiker's Guide memorized to be nerdily impressive on several occasions. Plus, vastly amusing.

'Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun...'
posted by jacquilynne at 6:52 AM on August 1, 2006

I'm not good at memorizing arbitrary sequences (too many possible alternatives next-words spring to mind), but as a child I learned (not as a school assignment, thank god, just because I loved it) the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. I can still recite from memory those rolling, exquisitely well balanced phrases, although with less pleasure and more determination these last five years.

In college, one (rather flakey) iinstructor opened the first day of his class by asking if anyone could recite the Declaration, expecting to make the point that no one of the thity-odd polisci majors in the class could. It was very satisfying to me to keep reciting until the instructor, flustered, asked me to stoop, at which point I, feigning a look of innocent incomprehension on my face, gravely "informed" him "but there's more."
posted by orthogonality at 6:56 AM on August 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Much Shakespeare, the opening of Paradise Lost, other random pieces here and there.

We had to memorize "spot quotes" and recite poems in high school. Everyone complained, and it's fallen even further out of style since, I imagine. But having those lines memorized is an amazing, beautiful gift that I have with me everywhere I go.

soma lkzx, I've seen the last two lines of that, but I'd never read the whole thing before. Breathtaking. Thank you.
posted by PlusDistance at 7:31 AM on August 1, 2006

It's not a litry quotation as such, but I also taught myself this speech from Jaws as a kid, as well as the Yeats above. Still remember it too.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:31 AM on August 1, 2006

Le Panto by GK Chesterton.

'nuff said.
posted by Chorus at 7:36 AM on August 1, 2006

This thread has renewed my (somewhat forgotten) determination to memorize The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which is one of my favourite poems (along with a bunch of Shakespeare).

Over the years as an actor I've memorized a lot of Shakespeare, but if I don't keep up on it, it tends to fall by the wayside--generally to make room for the next script I'm cramming in. Working on this stuff while waiting for the train or bus is a great idea. I've always envied my father's ability to quote so many beautiful poems and passages.

My current favourite sonnet is 90.

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for and after-loss:
Ah! do not , when my heart hath scap’d this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer’d woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purpos’d overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compar’d with loss of thee will not seem so.

One of the nice things about the sonnets is that you know they have 16 lines, and they have an easy to follow rhyming pattern (both of which help with memorization) and the grand satisfaction of the rhyming couplet at the end.
posted by witchstone at 7:43 AM on August 1, 2006

Favorite memorized literary quotation? It would have to be the first stanza of This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but the do
They fill you with the faults they had
and add some extras, just for you
posted by necessitas at 7:49 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Whan that Aprille with it's shores soote,
The draught of March hath perced to th' roote,
The tender crops and the younge sonne,
Hath in the ram, his half-course 'e ronne.

The opening to Chaucer's "Canturbury Tales" in Middle English still stays with me to this day, 15 years after having to memorize it for a high school literature course.

The trick to this retention was the discovery (much to the chagrin of our teacher), that the rhyme and meter of Chaucer matched perfectly with the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"...Chaucer, that is..."
posted by kaseijin at 7:49 AM on August 1, 2006

I had to memorize the Old English opening to The Canterbury Tales as well.
For some reason I never in twelve years of Catholic school got around to memorizing the Act of Contrition, but I know 'The Walrus & The Carpenter' by heart.
posted by Sara Anne at 7:58 AM on August 1, 2006

John Betjeman's Slough:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

And so on.

And I once knew all of Dr. Suess' Too Many Daves.
posted by booth at 7:59 AM on August 1, 2006

My two all time favorites, "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

And "Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human rivers
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
posted by SoulOnIce at 8:05 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've memorized most of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) in the Bible, which is my all-time favorite piece of writing. I particularly like to recite the opening lines:

1. The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3 What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8 All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

I also like this passage:

1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
2 while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
3 in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
4 and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;
5 also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
6 or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
8 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.

I am obviously lots of fun at parties.
posted by Falconetti at 8:08 AM on August 1, 2006

Quote (from Gatsby):

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable vision to her perishable breath, that his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.

He waited a moment, listening to a tuning fork that had been struck upon a star, and then he kissed her.

At his lips touch, she blossomed for him like a flower, and the incarnation was complete.

Related anecdote:

The ladies, they love the Fitzgerald.
posted by dersins at 8:13 AM on August 1, 2006

May not be the best piece of his writing, but these last few verses from Tennyson's Ode to Memory stick out with me (King Edward said them to Wallis Simpson when he abdicated his crown for her):

My friend, with you to live alone
Were how much better than to own
A crown, a sceptre, and a throne!

Also, most of the work by the Urdu-Persian poet Ghalib. None other like him. Translations of some of his work.
posted by raheel at 8:14 AM on August 1, 2006

The Erlkoenig (Elf King) from Goethe in German...bits and pieces of other Goethe things.

The Raven..

The Requiem, by Stevenson:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

And most of the movie Gladiator..I have no idea why.
posted by tozturk at 8:27 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is some shit I will not eat. e.e. cummings, "i sing of Olaf glad and big"

Such beautiful rhythm, such elegant vitriol, such power. It's surprisingly relevant today, too, come to think of it.

What we don't say, we don't know. Anselm Hollo

I'm a firm believer in knowing what I'm good at, and doing it. The correlary of which is knowing what I am NOT good at and not doing it. So I am quick to tell people what I can and cannot do. This quote helps me to know that you can know more about a person by what he/she does not say than by what he/she does say.

[He was] starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true. -- "Master Song" by Leonard Cohen

When someone brings up religion or the mystery of faith with me, this line always comes to mind.
posted by the matching mole at 8:30 AM on August 1, 2006

Gerard Manley Hopkins' "I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day" and "Spring and Fall (to a young child)," though the former is a little too depressing for public recitation:
...I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Yeats' "Second Coming." Bits and pieces of Shakespeare - primarily parts of monologues from Hamlet and Midsummer's Night's Dream. For the latter, the best is Puck's closing speech:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this,--and all is mended,--
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Most of the Lorelei and Der Erlkönig, auf Deutsch:
Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn...

posted by ubersturm at 8:32 AM on August 1, 2006

Shakespeare for getting caught in the rain, Chaucer when welcoming a sexy spring day, Yeats for wooing people at the bar, Anne Carson for when they cheat on you, Wilbur while mowing your lawn, Okigbo for prophesying your own death, and Plath for forecasting your resurrection.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:44 AM on August 1, 2006

I know all of Jabberwocky and the first page to The Outsiders, but the only one that actually comes in handy is:

Nature's first green is gold
her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower,
but only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,
so Eden sank to grief,
so Dawn goes down to day,
nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost; sadly handy when writing funeral cards.
posted by headspace at 8:48 AM on August 1, 2006

I love Shakespeare but aside from sonnets, one fragment that instantly stayed with me is from the end of Macbeth, when Ross and Malcolm are informing Siward his son is dead. Ross says, in part:

"your cause of sorrow
Must not be measured by his worth, for then
It hath no end."

I don't know why, but that has always seemed to be the most eloquent acknowledgment of grief I've read.

Also, Buffalo Bill by e e cummings:

Buffalo Bill 's
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death
posted by Oobidaius at 8:53 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Jabberwocky... in French. :)
posted by Andrhia at 8:58 AM on August 1, 2006

In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound:

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough."
"Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say I have no pleasure in them; while the sun or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain; in the day when the keeper of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease, because they are few; and those that look out of the windows be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low; and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low. Also, when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets; or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."--Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
posted by mattbucher at 9:02 AM on August 1, 2006

The last three paragraphs of James Joyce's "The Dead" -- among the most beautiful prose ever put to paper.
posted by scody at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2006

"If" by Rudyard Kipling.
posted by ericb at 9:05 AM on August 1, 2006

out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
posted by jouke at 9:17 AM on August 1, 2006


Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

2. Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
Siehst Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht!
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron' und Schweif?
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.

3. Du liebes Kind, komm geh' mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele, spiel ich mit dir,
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.

4. Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind,
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.

5. Willst feiner Knabe du mit mir geh'n?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön,
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.

6. Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düsteren Ort?
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh'es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.

7. Ich lieb dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt,
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt!
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an,
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan.

8. Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not,
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

But I cheat: I hum it to Schuberts tune including alternating piano chords.
posted by jouke at 9:24 AM on August 1, 2006

Most of what I have has already been mentioned: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." from Macbeth; "If we shadows have offended..." from A Midsummer Night's Dream; the end of Kubla Khan (from "A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw" through the end.) The one I know which I haven't seen mentioned here is the Litany against fear from Dune.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:34 AM on August 1, 2006

I also have memorized most of Yeats' The Second Coming (already reprinted here).
posted by mmw at 9:34 AM on August 1, 2006

At the far end of town, where the grickle-grass grows
And the wind smells slow and sour when it blows
And no birds ever sing, excepting old crows
Is the street of the lifted Lorax.

And deep in the grickle-grass, some people say
If you look deep enough you can still see today
Where the Lorax once stood, just as long as it could
Until somebody lifted the Lorax away.

But what was the Lorax? And why was it there?
And why was it lifted and taken somewhere
From the far end of town where the grickle-grass grows?
The old Once-ler still lives there. Ask him. He knows.

And so on. This was one of my daughter's favorite books when she was about three. We both had the whole thing memorized after a while. I actually have a lot of the Seuss canon memorized, because it's so fun to recite.

I also have tons of one-line snips of Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and the Bible rattling around, but not many complete passages. These pop up in conversation sometimes. My current favorite is "a consummation devoutly to be wished."
posted by expialidocious at 9:48 AM on August 1, 2006

I had memorized all of Milton's Lycidas for a college class at one point in order to avoid writing the final paper. Given how much time it took and how much of it I actually remember, I would have been better off writing the paper.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:52 AM on August 1, 2006

Parts of Eliot's The Wasteland.
posted by names are hard at 10:08 AM on August 1, 2006

Göethe, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake (Tyger, Tyger comes in handy a lot), Shelley (especially Shelley - "When the lamp is shattered, the light in the dust lies dead", "Oh Wild West Wind, thou breath of autumn's being);

Jabberwocky in English and German.

With rue my heart is laden, for golden friends I had, for many a rose-lipped maiden, and many a lightfoot lad...

Kipling: "the great grey green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees..."

and particularly apt now: "For it's Tommy this and Tommy that and Tommy, wait outside;" but it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Frost - Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice - also very apt right now.

In Flander's field, the poppies blow between the crosses row on row that mark our graves..." I recite it whenever I see a field of poppies, and on Poppy Day, and when soldiers die, which is fairly often these days.

Emily Dickenson - a number of her poems.

Also Edna St. Vincent Millay - My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night...

Chunks of Antigone

And... The other day, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. I wish that man would go away.
posted by clarkstonian at 10:12 AM on August 1, 2006

I'm seconding the opening of Canterbury Tales :)
posted by dagnyscott at 10:15 AM on August 1, 2006

If it's entertainment you're after, you can't go wrong with Robert W. Service's Shooting of Dan McGrew or Cremation of Sam McGee. Or Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter.
You can ham it up as much as you like with these.
posted by bmckenzie at 10:20 AM on August 1, 2006

Prufrock (mentioned earlier) and Howl.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:25 AM on August 1, 2006

I used to have John Lennon's "I sat belonely" memorized. I only know the first few lines and some snippets of the rest by heart now.
posted by routergirl at 10:31 AM on August 1, 2006

Edward Thomas's Adlestrop (I travel by train a lot).

Lorenzo's "Man that hath not music in himself" speech from the Merchant of Venice, Act V.

The description of Thersites in Pope's Iliad:

"Thersites only clamour’d in the throng,
Loquacious, loud, and turbulent of tongue:
Awed by no shame, by no respect controll’d,
In scandal busy, in reproaches bold:
With witty malice studious to defame,
Scorn all his joy, and laughter all his aim:—
But chief he gloried with licentious style
To lash the great, and monarchs to revile."
posted by athenian at 10:35 AM on August 1, 2006

i memorized blake's "the clod and the pebble" because the duality-of-love theme resonated with me.

i also learned wordsworth's elegy for mankind "river duddon after-thought" after hearing eugen weber use it to close his excellent lecture series "the western tradition".
posted by bruceo at 10:42 AM on August 1, 2006

I also had the "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow..." speech from Hamlet commited to memory, partly due to assignment, partly due to love of the human condition. That started 30 years ago.

I have lots of children's poems and rhymes set firmly into neurons.

I have the opening paragraph to "A Tale of Two Cities", although that's getting hazy.

Firmly ensconced is the slogan of the French National Honors Society: "La langue: un symbole vivant du génie createur de l'homme." (Language: a living symbol of the creative genius of man[kind]).
posted by plinth at 10:47 AM on August 1, 2006

Bits of Shakespeare, huge tracts of Douglas Adams, Frost, Dickinson, Nash, Coleridge's Kubla Khan, most of it memorized inadvertently. These days it's mostly nursery rhymes and children's books which I seem to retain whether I mean to or not. A recent highlight:

"Bat, bat, come under my hat
And I will give you a slice of bacon.
And when I bake
I'll give you a cake
If I am not mistaken."
posted by Songdog at 10:53 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

One bit of Shakespeare that seems sadly handy:
"I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
(Richard III)
posted by equipoise at 11:12 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

I took a Latin class in high school, coming up on 15 years ago, and for some reason this totally useless sentence has never left me: "Actius quoque finambulam spectat." Which means "Actius also looks at the tightrope walker."

Maybe I just really liked that Latin has its own word for "tightrope walker."

I've also got Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds") memorized, which is equally baffling because it's one of my least favorites.
posted by jesourie at 11:14 AM on August 1, 2006

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Robert Herrick
posted by bashos_frog at 11:18 AM on August 1, 2006

"The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies, to drive them before you, to deprive them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, and to ravish their wives and daughters."
-- attributed to Genghis Khan

These from Milton:
"Better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n"

"The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. "

"Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image, but thee who destroys a good book, kills reason its self. "
posted by bashos_frog at 11:18 AM on August 1, 2006

And some haiku:
kono michi ya
yuku hito nashi ni
aki no kure

autumn chill
no other travelers
brave this road
on this road
where nobody else travels
autumn nightfall

-- Basho
posted by bashos_frog at 11:19 AM on August 1, 2006

Just the first line of Pursuit by Stephen Dobyns: "Each thing I do I rush through so I can do something else."

In high school (and for a long time after) I could recite two parts of Julius Caesar: "There is a tide in the afairs of men..." an, of course, "Friends, Romans, country men, ..." I had to memorize them for a class but I liked them and it struck with me.

I also know a couple lines of Latin particularly well. "Quidquid id est, timeo danaos et dona ferentis."; "Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori."; and "Odi et amo... excrucior."
posted by sbutler at 12:02 PM on August 1, 2006

"No man is an island, entire unto its self. Every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main; if a clod is washed away by the sea, England is the less, as well as if a promotory were; as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -- John Dunne
posted by nicwolff at 12:09 PM on August 1, 2006

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light" - another of my favorites. Dylan Thomas
posted by clarkstonian at 12:30 PM on August 1, 2006

Some others I remember but didn't remember that I remembered(!) for my earlier answer. Jabberwocky and Fire and Ice have been mentioned by others above. But also:

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.

(From The Fellowship of the Ring)

And also:

Make your choice, adventurous stranger:
Strike the bell and bide the danger.
Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
What would have followed if you had.

(From The Magician's Nephew)

And I can get the preamble to the U.S. Constitution by singing the Schoolhouse Rock music for it.

Though I mentioned "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." before, what I didn't mention (which may be of interest only to me) is that it is my default test for speech recognition software. No matter how clearly I enunciate, my tablet PC insists on rendering "dusty death" as "test the depths."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:42 PM on August 1, 2006

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
posted by AJaffe at 12:49 PM on August 1, 2006

A few:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
--Maryanne Williamson

" If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven."
--Rupert Brooke - The Soldier

and lastly, most of:
"What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
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 nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
--Henry V
posted by mooders at 12:51 PM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

"You can't guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed we still insisted on finding the highest cliff to jump off. But we do need a breather. We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years we might pick smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caesar's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, 'Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.' Most of us can't rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends. The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see nitey-nine percent of them is in a book. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore."

--Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
posted by inging at 12:52 PM on August 1, 2006

A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna míiriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Gilthoniel A Elbereth

I'm just a big nerd. I had a tape copy of Tolkien reciting that when I was a kid and it's been in my memory ever since.
posted by Clock Attention Issues at 12:54 PM on August 1, 2006

Poems and book fragments I remember memorizing, in order of memorization!

Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" speech
The Twins, Henry Leigh
The Hippopotamus, Ogden Nash
She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways, Wordsworth
Stevenson's Requiem (seconded from above)
Last 2 paragraphs of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
End of Tennyson's Ulysses
Intro to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, re utopias
Mad Girl's Love Song, Sylvia Plath
Tulips, Plath
Opening lines to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (must have been a favorite requirement of professors -- I learned mine off a recording from a speaker with an accent like the Swedish Chef from The Muppets)
And the Days Are Not Full Enough, Ezra Pound
September 1, 1939, W.H. Auden
Poem about Morning, William Meredith
Paragraph from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway re proportion and conversion
When the Vacation Is Over for Good, Mark Strand

I used to take really long showers and memorize things. I think I remember everything still except for the Huxley and some of the Auden.
posted by onlyconnect at 1:14 PM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Dorothy Parker's "Resume". I had John Lennon's " The Fat Budgie" memorized at one point, but no longer. My jealousy poem about a fellow classmate from Iowa.
posted by brujita at 1:18 PM on August 1, 2006

Henry V - most of "...and gentlemen in England now abed will hold themselves accursed that were not here with us upon St. Crispin's day"
"It was the schooner Hesperus"; "The moon's the North wind's cookie"; "on Tuesdays and Saturdays, especially on the latter days, He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head"
I will write, not sing "Verrano a te sull aure..." from Lucia di Lammermoor. Count your blessings.
posted by Cranberry at 3:42 PM on August 1, 2006

Google has a better memory:

by A.A.Milne

Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on.

He went among the villagers and blipped them on the head.

On Wednesday and on Saturday,

Especially on the latter day,

He called on all the cottages and this is what he said:
posted by Cranberry at 3:45 PM on August 1, 2006

the entirety of yeas' "When You Are Old," and I'm known to quote hamlet thusly from time to time: I could live in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.

also, I occasionally quote lionel richie: I'm easy like sunday morning.
posted by shmegegge at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2006

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river ran, though caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea.
posted by pointilist at 4:48 PM on August 1, 2006

SAY not the struggle naught availeth,
The labor and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here, no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

Arthur Hugh Clough

I once read in a Safire column that Churchill tagged the end of a letter to Roosevelt with this poem, during the period that he was trying to convince Roosevelt to explicitly enter the war. The final stanza takes on new meaning in that context.
posted by gsteff at 7:19 PM on August 1, 2006

I used to be able to recite The Adventures of Isabel by Ogen Nash.
posted by prettypretty at 10:08 PM on August 1, 2006

బోద్ధలగు వారు మత్సర పూర్ణమతులు,
ప్రభలగర్వభూషితుల్ ప్రభువులెన్న
ఇతర మనుజూలు బోధ్ధోపహతులు,
గాన భావమున జీర్ణమయ్యె సుభాషితంబు.

(My peers are too bothered to hear me out,
The rulers are too proud to listen,
People who aren't rulers or peers are too dumb to appreciate it,
Which is why I've digested these words here)

తివిరీసమున తైలంబు తీయవచ్చు,
తవిలి మృగతృష్ణలో నీరు త్రాగవచ్చు
తిరిగి కుందేటి కొమ్ము సాధించవచ్చు
చేరి మూర్ఖుల మనస్సు రంజింపరాదు.

(You may eventually find cooking oil in sand,
You may eventually quench your thirst by following a mirage,
You may eventually capture a rabbit with a horn,
But you'll never satisfy a fool.)

These are the first two poems from a 17th century Telugu translation of an even older Sanskrit poem collection called the s'ubha'shita tris'ati, written by that great Sanskrit poet, Bratruhari.

I also would like to lay claim to being the first person in Metafilter to write a post in 17th century Telugu. Spelling mistakes galore, I'm sure, and a very very rough translation that seems to squeeze all beauty out of the poems, but here ya go.

I can also do most of Kubla Khan and William Wordsworth's Daffodils, but that's for another day.
posted by the cydonian at 3:45 AM on August 2, 2006

I have Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" and Shakespeare's 94th sonnet and Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and bits and snatches of other stuff that always remind me of the Book of Psomethings in the Boomer Bible.
posted by cgc373 at 3:08 PM on August 2, 2006

Only in silence the word
only in dark the light
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.

(Epigraph to A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin)

Out of the darkness
on a dark path,
I now set out.
Shine on me,
moon of the mountain edge.

Izumi Shikibu, tr. Rexroth
posted by zadcat at 9:14 PM on August 2, 2006

Oh, and Speak White is one of the bitterest poems I know. I couldn't call it "very very nice".
posted by zadcat at 9:43 PM on August 2, 2006

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.
-Oscar Wilde
posted by BoscosMom at 1:25 AM on August 3, 2006

Edward Gorey's Alphabet.
A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh. E is for Ernest who choked on a peach. F is for Fanny sucked dry by a leach. G is for George smothered under a rug. H is for Hector done in by a thug. I is for Irma killed with a rake. J is for James who took lye by mistake. K is for Kate struck with an axe. L is for Leo who swallowed some tacks. M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui. O is for Olive run through with an awl. P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl. Q for Quentin who sank in a mire. (don't remember R but she perished in fire) S is for Sarah who perished of fits. T is for Titus who flew into bits. U for Una swept down a drain. V is for Victor squashed by a train. W for Winnie embedded in ice. X is for Xerxes eaten by mice. Y is for Yorik whose head was bashed in. Z is for Zulah who drank too much gin.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:26 AM on August 3, 2006

Hmm...the first stanza of The Canterbury Tales in Old English, and large sections of Richard Cory by E.A. Robinson (in modern English :)
posted by AuntLisa at 3:16 PM on August 3, 2006

Late to the party, but what a nice thread!
Like many of the posters, I tend to recite poetry for "an occasion" even if the occasion is a toast...

So, first a toast!
"Drink today and drown your sorrow,
you may not be here tomorrow.
While you have it, use your breath,
There's no drinking after death!"

(found it right here on askme, actually)

Lots of stuff in French, because the language is dramatic and brilliant..
- the entire "L'examen de minuit", often recited at midnight, to a sushed public...
- the whole "Mon rêve familier". Especailly when friends or my folks ask me about my current 'love interest'.
- the last two verses of "À une passante" when I make fleeting eye-contact with a handsome man on a street or in another public place.
- bits of a poem in prose by a high-school friend (Julien Durrand, if he ever publishes..) that's fastly paced and simply genius.
- Small bits of "Quand le ciel bas et lourd.." especially the last verse. (Yes, I like drama)

- when planning something sneeky or naughty:
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

- I cannot deny the past to which myself is wed,
A woven figure cannot undo it's thread.

(Louis MacNeice - "Valediction")

- Like angry dogs the human race
loves the snarl upon its face
it loves to kill.
The pessimist says
it always will.

(Langston Hughes)

- my favourite Rumi:
"Little by little wean yourself,
that is the gist of what I want to say.."

(argh! Now I just can't continue until I recited the whole thing in my head!)

- "Players and spectators in the arena
Baffled by our moves and by the world's
We are playthings in the hands of time
Dancing to music that is not our own."

Khalilullah Khalili, afghan poet.
(I sent this poem to Raed during his darker moments, and he thanked me)

And finally, I tend to irreverantly quote weird bits of songs. First example that springs to mind is when a guy said he didn't like my friends, I launched into a serious spoken recitation of Spice Girls'
"If you wanna be my lover (pause)
you gotta get with my friends (pause)
Make it last forever (pause)
Friendship. Never. Ends." (meaningful look)

.. or when a friend was seriously considering a gvmt job, the first retort that popped into my head was:
"I got a letter from the government
The other day
I opened and read it
It said they were suckers
They wanted me for their army or whatever
Picture me given' a damn I said never...
Here is a land that never gave a damn
About a brother like me and myself
Because they never did
I wasn't wit' it but just that very minute...
It occurred to me
The suckers had authority!"

(Black Steel -Tricky)

Lots of American folk singers like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash (My parents and I sing/scream the words to Folsom Prison Blues... you know:
When I was just a baby,
My Mama told me, "Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don't ever play with guns,"
But I shot a man in Reno,
Just to watch him dieeeee..
.. also the Norah Jones/ Dolly Parton lyrics to "Creepin' In", a lot of country music, etc, etc..

As for anecdotes, the strangest poem-related thing happened when it was raining in France and I was with my best friend, when we had the following conversation:
"- Il pleut"
"- C'est merveilleux"
" - Je t'aime"

.. when suddenly this random other dude launches into..
"Nous resterons à la maison
Rien ne nous plaît plus que nous-mêmes
En ce temps d'arrière-saison
Il pleut les taxis vont et viennent
On voit rouler les autobus
Et les remorqueurs sur la Seine
Font un bruit qu'on ne s'entend plus
... and my friend and I just simply stare at him, both thinking "damn, that's a really good free style" when he curiously asked, "You knew that's the first line of a famous poem, right?"
We didn't.
posted by ruelle at 2:17 PM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

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