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Many year ago I read Two Years Before the Mast. While I’m still not sure about which sail is which, I found the book to be a fascinating history. One of the passages that has stuck in my mind is the one where Richard Henry Dana, Jr. reveals how he kept himself awake and alert on the night watch by reciting from memory an incredible array of facts as well as pieces of literature.
Here is the quote from the book.
I commenced a deliberate system of time-killing, which united some profit with a cheering up of the heavy hours. As soon as I came on deck, and took my place and regular walk, I began with repeating over to myself a string of matters which I had in my memory, in regular order. First, the multiplication table and the tables of weights and measures; then the states of the union, with their capitals; the counties of England, with their shire towns; the kings of England in their order; and a large part of the peerage, which I committed from an almanac that we had on board; and then the Kanaka numerals. This carried me through my facts, and, being repeated deliberately, with long intervals, often eked out the two first bells. Then came the ten commandments; the thirty-ninth chapter of Job, and a few other passages from Scripture. The next in the order, that I never varied from, came Cowper’s Castaway, which was a great favorite with me; the solemn measure and gloomy character of which, as well as the incident that it was founded upon, made it well suited to a lonely watch at sea. Then his lines to Mary, his address to the jackdaw, and a short extract from Table Talk; (I abounded in Cowper, for I happened to have a volume of his poems in my chest;) “Ille et nefasto” from Horace, and Gœthe’s Erl King. After I had got through these, I allowed myself a more general range among everything that I could remember, both in prose and verse. In this way, with an occasional break by relieving the wheel, heaving the log, and going to the scuttle-butt for a drink of water, the longest watch was passed away; and I was so regular in my silent recitations, that if there was no interruption by ship’s duty, I could tell very nearly the number of bells by my progress.
I know I could not do that. I could rattle off the times tables, the Ten Commandments, and hopefully most of the states and their capitals. I had a knack for memorizing facts when I was young. I did very well in recalling word-for-word the Baltimore Catechism. The nuns figured that out quickly enough and seldom called on me when I raised my hand. While I cannot toss back the answers to all the catechism questions anymore, I have retained most of the basic knowledge of the Church—probably because I still belong to it.
When I got to high school I had no problem in memorizing the periodic table. However, I promptly forgot it once I no longer needed it.
Obviously, back in the old days, people relied on memorization far more than we do today. Socrates believed that people would stop memorizing once they started to write things down.
Today with the internet at our fingertips, we never have to memorize anything. Just type it into Google and you’ve got the information you need instantly.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about what I would do if I had to keep myself alert on a night watch, I would probably recite my Rosary—but that wouldn’t take up too much time. I could sing a lot of songs and hymns as well as recite a few short bits of Scripture. There are a few poems I have loved and remember. Having spent much of my career teaching little children, I have committed an inordinate amount of children's books to memory. I suppose I could go through the times tables, the Ten Commandments, and every state with its capital city.
But what else?
What do you have in your memory that would keep you awake and alert on a long night watch?