When I started this blog in June 2008, I called it “WalkThoughts,” with the tagline “Idle thoughts while walking.” The idea was that I would write about the things I thought about while walking. Some people do their best thinking in the shower, but I take very brief showers, and I do a lot of thinking during my two-mile walks, which, since March 2020 (when gyms closed and ballet classes were suspended and Rotary meetings moved to Zoom), have become daily. Over the years, my “blog about nothing” has become a blog about anything and everything, but many of my posts are still composed during my walks.

Anytime the brain is in neutral, however, odd thoughts and memories will rise to the top. In my case, it is often chunks of remembered text. I grew up in an era when children/students were encouraged—indeed often required—to memorize stuff, primarily Scripture, Shakespeare, and other poetry. My first experience with this (aside from nursery rhymes) was probably in second grade, when I was chosen as the narrator of a “health play” our class was putting on for the school and parents. Other students were cast as a carton of milk, a carrot, an apple, a head of lettuce, and so on. To my mother’s relief, as “Mary Gay” I was “just a little girl,” not requiring any special costume. But “She has quite a long poem to say, which is real cute. She copied it yesterday and already knows most of it by heart, as well as everyone else’s part, it appears. She’s never been much on memory work, you know, but she does have a prodigious memory.”

Alas, my memory nowadays has failed to the point that I can’t even repeat a single overheard sentence verbatim, but I do remember much of what I memorized as a child, mostly verse. In tenth grade, we were required to memorize the first stanza of Lady of the Lake (“The stag at eve had drunk his fill / where danced the moon on Monan’s rill…”) and Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar. I can still rattle off the former but can’t get past the first couple of verses of the latter. I suspect that rhyming couplets are easier than blank verse, which in turn is easier than free verse.

So snippets of verse from time to time surface while I’m walking. When this happens, I usually try to reconstruct the entire poem, with varying levels of success (in a recent case, I found that I’d muddled together lines from Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”), but it’s always satisfying when I do succeed.

When I am doing yard work, my mind is even more open to poetic memory. The first poem to make its appearance when I am raking leaves is usually “The Road Not Taken” (“…both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black”). Despite its unusual rhyme scheme (abaab), I have that one quite by heart. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly”) is another favorite. But often I then get a visit from some hymn or Christmas carol (in season). Most of us who grew up with these lyrics can usually get through the first verse and then break down. With a few hints, we can reconstruct some of the rest. Here again I find the rhyme scheme helpful: abab provides more clues than aabb.

The hymn that has been tormenting me for weeks—and I call it a “brainworm” rather than an earworm, as it is the words rather than the tune that are persistent but elusive—is “Be Thou My Vision.” Although, according to Wikipedia, this is one of the most popular hymns in the United Kingdom, I don’t recall singing it often in the Presbyterian church where I grew up. When we did, we used the text written by Eleanor Hull in 1912:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

This is not original poetry. It is one of several translations of a sixth-century Irish poem, and it seems to be fairly accurate. Hull’s translation includes a third stanza (“Be thou my battle shield…”) that is omitted from many hymnals (I’d never heard it). Interestingly, there’s one verse in the original that doesn’t appear in this translation at all. It falls between the first and second couplets of the last stanza: “Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations. / Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.” Recent more politically correct hymnals substitute “vain, empty praise” for “man’s empty praise” and work around the references to Father and son, but Hull’s original is the version I remember.

Except I don’t remember it! Until I finally googled it, I found myself struggling with bits and pieces that I could not put together with any confidence. Why is this so hard? Unlike “The Road Not Taken” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” this poem doesn’t tell a story but expresses a similar theme in each stanza. Each couplet is more or less complete in itself; the aabb rhyme scene provides no clue to what follows. Because I can hear the tune in my head, I know that a given couplet is the first or second in a stanza, but many of the second couplets could equally well follow any of the first. It doesn’t help that so many of the lines contain vocatives (“Lord of my heart,” “High King of Heaven,” “Heart of my own heart,” “Ruler of all”) that could go anywhere. And each verse in each couplet is composed of two segments, some of them similarly fungible. The result is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle from many almost-identical pieces. When you finally get the picture put together right (which I still struggle to do without peeking), the hymn does have an internal logic that makes sense. Still, I look forward to someday being able to put this one aside and start work on another “brainworm”!

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2 Responses to Brainworms

  1. Clair says:

    I really enjoy reading your posts, Susan. I’m in Perth, Australia so it’s lovely to get to know what life is like in another part of the world.

  2. Jodi says:

    I read this post about brainworm, and it is the closest to what I experience often. I almost always have a song pop into my head shortly after I wake up, but teaching English has caused a really strange phenomenon for me. When I teach Shakespeare five times a day, I constantly have a line or lines from the play pop into my mind. It’s very strange because often someone will say something and a related line from Shakespeare will enter my mind almost like a reply my mind provides me. When it’s not Shakespeare, I often get lines of poetry stuck in my head too. The Frost poem you mentioned is a frequent visitor as well as Maya Angelou. When someone criticizes me, the line “you may write me down in hisory with your bitter twisted lies” or the line “you may trod me in the dirt” cones to me like an anthem. I am really curious whether other English teachers experience this situation more often than others because like for me, I was reading Shakespeare 5times a day, for a couple months over the span of 12 years.

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