June 01, 2018 Litigator's Muse

William Wordsworth and the Creation of Memory

Michael Tigar | The author, a former chair of the Section of Litigation, has been a trial lawyer, law teacher, and writer for 50 years. His latest book, Mythologies of State and Monopoly Power, was published in September 2018.

Download a printable PDF of this article.

In 1798, William Wordsworth returned to Tintern Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery in Wales. He wrote a poem, recalling his earlier visit:

Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs.

. . .

He acknowledged the fallibility of his own honest recollection.

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,

And what perceive. . . .

A student of Wordsworth’s poetry will find many references to scenes that he recalls and now seeks to re-create, acknowledging tacitly or expressly that his honest recollection is clouded. Think, for example, of the poem that begins “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” written about a walk he had taken with his sister.

That phrase “what they half-create, And what perceive” is not simply a poet’s fanciful description of his art: It describes the mechanism of all recollection. When we cross-examine, there are only four things about which we inquire: meaning, perception, veracity, and memory. These are the “hearsay dangers,” the defects in witness testimony that cross-examination is designed to address. Of these four, memory is the most elusive. “My memory plays tricks on me,” the saying goes. The aphorist Austin O’Malley wrote: “Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.”

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now