What Memorization Taught Caleb Crain About His Favorite W.H. Auden Poem

Two decades after first committing "In Praise of Limestone" to memory, Crain continues to find new meanings in the poem's structure and syntax.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

There was a time when every able schoolchild in American memorized poems -- which is perhaps why the very word "memorization," for many, conjures unhappy images of 1950s schoolrooms where glassy-eyed kids chant out rote lessons before the air raid drill. But today, most of us barely retain the phone numbers of cherished friends and lovers. Since our gadgets store the information that we must be counted on to recall, freeing our brains to pursue bigger ideas, why memorize a poem? Why go beyond simple on-the-page appreciation and learn a piece by heart?

When I asked Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors, to contribute to this series, he wanted to discuss how much he learned by committing a poem to memory. Only through repetition did W.H. Auden's "In Praise of Limestone" really come alive for him -- it was by going over it and over it with teeth and tongue, he says, that he grasped the work's structural and poetic nuances. A headline from the Times Educational Supplement nails the prevailing attitude -- "Learning by Rote Kills Verse for Life" -- but in his essay, Crain demonstrates how memorization unearthed this poem's lasting gift.

Necessary Errors tells the story of Jacob, a young American in Prague, and chronicles the sexual, artistic, and worldly awakenings of strange youths in a strange land. Arriving in 1990, just one year after the Velvet Revolution, Jacob and his companions wonder whether they've been born too late: The remains of spent passion and crumbled glory surround them as they search for love and meaning.

Caleb Crain is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, the New Yorker Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He is author of the critical work American Sympathy and the novella "Sweet Grafton," published by n+1.

Caleb Crain: Almost 20 years ago, I met a fellow graduate student who knew W.H. Auden's poem "In Praise of Limestone" by heart. We were both gay, and the lines that my new friend was able to recite seemed to capture with uncanny precision the hopes and fears with which we were looking for love and companionship in New York City. Auden's phrase "sometimes / Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step," for example, seemed to describe the balance between erotic harmony and individual autonomy that we were seeking -- a balance that seemed as if it might be a bit trickier to achieve in gay relationships than in straight ones, given that gay lovers share a gender. My friend quoted the line so often to me that I was soon able to quote it back to him; it became a touchstone for the way we wanted our romances and our friendships to go. Another favorite of ours was the line "I, too, am reproached, for what / And how much you know," which I think we liked because of the complicity it suggested -- the sense, conveyed by the rhythm of the words, that they had been spoken by someone who had been led astray by desire much in the way that we often were -- by someone who knew what our struggles were like and felt safe winking at them.

My friend's memorization seemed like such a neat trick that in the end I knocked it off, and memorized the poem myself. It wasn't hard. The poem doesn't rhyme, but its images are vivid, and the phrases are so much fun to say that they stick naturally in one's head. Auden wrote the poem soon after moving to Italy in the spring of 1948, and according to the scholar John Fuller, whose glosses of Auden are indispensable, the limestone landscape of the poem represents both the lead-mining terrain that Auden knew in his childhood in England and the countryside around Florence that he was then exploring for the first time as an adult. The conceit of the poem is that limestone shapes the personalities, ethics, and imaginations of boys and men who grow up on a landscape comprised of it. Limestone, in Auden's handling, is both a sensuous thing, to be appreciated for its own sake, and a foothold, as it were, for allegory.

The young men native to limestone move, the poem says, "in twos and threes," and Auden's poem moves the same way. The rhythm is an irregular mix of iambs (one-two) and dactyls (one-two-three). Alliteration, of the sort that Auden admired in Anglo-Saxon poetry, also occurs in pairs and trios: "a private pool," "steep stone gennels," "the shady side of a square at midday." The pattern even recurs in the structure of the sentences. The second sentence, for example, consists of three commands: "mark these rounded slopes," "hear these springs," and "examine this region." The next sentence offers a choice of two options for what the landscape could be. And the sentence following suggests three examples of manmade structures that resemble naturally occurring phenomena. And so on. If you sit down to memorize the poem, you quickly discover that the pairs and triples are a mnemonic aid. There are three ways a young man raised on limestone tends to go bad. There are two things the limestone isn't, despite appearances. Only once in the poem is there four of something -- a significant number, I think, because the four items constitute a prayer, an aspiration a little beyond the alternation of twos and threes that is natural to humans. Soon after, as the poem winds down, the triangles give way to couples, as if to suggest that the poem is reaching a kind of peace and perhaps stability.

I say "triangles and couples," rather than just threes and twos, because Auden's limestone is explicitly sexual, as well as sensual. In the first published version, Auden wrote that the rocky terrain was a suitable background for a "nude young male who lounges / Against a rock displaying his dildo." It's a startling word. I remember my friend and I debating it. Had Auden had intended for his readers -- or anyway, for his gay readers -- to understand that he would have written "prick" or "cock" if he had been able to get away with it? In 1966, when Auden republished the poem, he seems to have thought he couldn't get away with even that much, and the word "dildo" vanished. Rather ingeniously, Fuller suggests that Auden chose the word "dildo" quite deliberately because, Fuller argues, "the dildo is a surrogate," and therefore an element in the opposition within the poem of art and nature. The dildo is a stony representation of the human form. Part of the human form, anyway. Another part seems to make an appearance in a later stanza, when Auden wonders if the landscape he describes is no more than "a backward and dilapidated province, connected / To the big busy world by a tunnel."

The danger of memorizing a poem, especially when it speaks to you, is that it works into the way you think. When it came time for me to write my dissertation, which eventually became the book American Sympathy, I found that I couldn't get Auden out of my head. In one chapter, I discussed a scene in Edgar Huntly, a 1799 Gothic novel by the American writer Charles Brockden Brown, in which a young man wanders through a limestone landscape, aerated, as all such landscapes are, with spring-carved caves. Was Brown's landscape, like Auden's, shaped by sexual myth? Auden's poem came back to me yet again while I was writing my novel Necessary Errors. I noticed, in the background of my thoughts, the return of Auden's dildo, with all its ambiguity and ambivalence. Auden prays that he may not resemble "a thing like water / Or stone whose conduct can be predicted," but he also celebrates the continuity between the naturally occurring shapes that water carves over time into rock and the human forms that the human eye -- and eventually with the progress of civilization, the human hand -- impose on the same substance. Statues, by the end of Auden's poem, even become icons of salvation. Can the innocence and eternity of a statue be reconciled with the impertinence and vigor of a youth making, as Auden puts it, "lively offers"? How do you represent gay love in art? How do you represent any human love, for that matter? I briefly considered changing the title of my novel to "The One Landscape that We the Inconstant Ones Are Consistently Homesick for," a phrase from the poem's opening lines, but the suggestion was politely and speedily suppressed by my agent and editor.

Earlier this year, for Valentine's Day, Rachel Syme invited me to join a group of writers who would be reciting poems they knew by heart in a program that she and Maris Kreizman were organizing at New York's Housing Works Bookstore. I found that I wanted to recite "In Praise of Limestone." It took me a few weeks to commit it again to memory, and as I did so, I was a little unsettled by how rich and strong the poem still seemed to me, after so many years away from it. It seemed more sad than I had remembered and also funnier. The questions it raises don't get any easier as one gets older. Sap that I am, I choked up a little as I recited, and even glancing at the lines now, I find myself moved as ever by the tenderness of Auden's voice -- the way he calls the reader "My dear" and "Dear" -- and by the tone of resignation with which he admits that he can't bring himself to give up on the two supreme human inventions, everlasting love and the immortality of the soul.