Louise Cowan Discusses Meditative Power of Memorization
Date published: Feb. 19, 2020
This article was originally published in May 2013 and was republished in memory of
University Professor Louise Cowan shortly after her death on Nov. 16, 2015. We are
republishing it again as a reminder of her wisdom.
"If I had been called upon a year ago, when I was only 95, to address you this afternoon,
I would, no doubt, have spoken of the importance of liberal arts education for the
preservation of civilization. But now I will only tell you, 'be sure you have memorized
a few poems to keep you company through whatever lies ahead.'"
So began University Professor Louise Cowan's address to the newest members of UD's
chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa liberal arts honor society, in which she reminded her
audience that learning poetry "by heart" means taking it into your heart in a way
that is not unlike prayer.
"Recitation takes on the lineaments of meditation and activates powers of the soul
which otherwise would remain dormant," said Cowan.
In a lecture interwoven with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Crowe Ransom,
A. E. Housman and Dylan Thomas, to name a few, Cowan focused on the "splendor of being"
evoked by lyric.
"Lyric is a reawakening of the interior language embedded in humankind at creation,
but lost at the fall," said Cowan. "It goes beyond the post-lapserian in order to
see things as they ought to be.".
Louise and her husband Donald Cowan joined the university in 1959 as chair of the
English and physics departments respectively. In the English Department, and later
as dean of the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts, Cowan played a major role
in devising a curricula of classic texts that comprise both the Literary Traditions
sequence in the Core Curriculum for undergraduates and the Institute of Philosophical
Studies for doctoral students.
Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776, is the oldest and most respected undergraduate honors
organization in the United States. In 1989, UD became the youngest university in the
20th century to receive a PBK chapter.