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