The most important tribute any human being can pay to a poem or a piece of prose he or she really loves is to learn it by heart. Not by brain, by heart. . . .What you know by heart, the bastards cannot touch.
Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.
—Motto, Boy Scouts of America
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods.”
Though the words from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The Lays of Ancient Rome conjured images of a misty, robed-and-pillared past, it was young Winston Churchill’s elocution that was electrifying. Standing before the Harrow School committee, Churchill flawlessly poured out line upon line telling the story of Horatius — the noble captain who would bodily defend the city against the onslaught of the mighty Etruscan army. At the conclusion of his proud, if not defiant, presentation, a transfixed room roared in applause as Churchill was awarded the declamation prize.
From a young age, Churchill was enamored with the written and spoken word. Though Latin was a sure form of torture for the young Briton, English was indispensable. The language of his British father and his American mother, of his beloved Shakespeare, and of the never-ceasing Empire was cause for great felicity and solemnity. Churchill reflected:
Naturally, I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.
During his military service in India, Churchill found himself enduring hours of agonizing monotony. Unwilling to waste precious time playing cards or napping during the interminable and sweltering Indian days, he entreated his mother to send him boxes of books, which he immediately devoured. Macaulay’s twelve volumes of English Histories and Gibbon’s eight-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were meticulously apportioned to his open hours, and soon he was reading Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Plato, and Henry Hallam’s The Constitutional History of England. Eager to follow in his Tory father’s parliamentary footsteps, Churchill even asked for 27 volumes of The Annual Register (dating back to Disraeli’s government) from which he could read bills from the House of Commons, summarize their proposals, and craft eloquent written arguments (and votes) for or against. This period of intense self-education Churchill dubbed “the University of One.” It would solidify his lifelong love for reading. “If you cannot read” all your books, Churchill purred,
at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on your shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances.
In works considering the influence of literature on Churchill (Churchill’s Literary Allusions, The Literary Churchill) as well as according to the findings of eminent Churchill historians Martin Gilbert, William Manchester, Andrew Roberts, and Richard Langworth, Churchill had a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare. Shakespeare, in fact, is the leading English author — bar none — that Churchill references in his essays, books, and speeches. Among his favorites include Hamlet, Richard III, and King John.
In 1944, when the fortunes of the Second World War had begun to turn for the Allies, Churchill was exuberant on learning that Laurence Olivier and Filippo Del Giudice were teaming up to produce a full-length color film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The prime minister insisted that Henry V was “a gleam of splendour in the dark, troubled story of medieval England,” adding that “Henry led the nation away from internal discord to foreign conquest. He had the dream and perhaps the prospect of leading all Western Europe into the high championship of a crusade.” On the eve of the top-secret D-Day invasion, what better story than Shakespeare’s Henry V to tell the world of an underdog British nation, beset by troubles and uncertainty, facing the roaring might of a haughty, well-fed, well-funded French army in a historically crucial battle . . . and winning? Shakespeare, from Churchill’s perspective, had already foretold the outcome.
Even after the war and into Churchill’s twilight years, the great man treasured Shakespeare. Richard Burton tells the well-known story of his 1953 encounter with the 79-year-old rumbustious prime minister and war hero while Burton was playing Hamlet at the Old Vic in London. “There he was,” Burton remembered,
sitting in the front row, literally within arm’s length. I heard this sort of dull, thunderous kind of rumbling in the stalls and I wondered what it might be. And it was Churchill who spoke every line with me. This was fairly disconcerting so I tried to shake him off. I went fast; I went slow; I went backwards; I went edgeways, but the old man caught up with me all the time. And, of course, Hamlet is so long that they cut three-quarters of an hour out of it. Whenever there was a cut there was a tremendous explosion in the stall [from Churchill] — you would have thought I was Hitler!
“He knew every play absolutely backwards.” Burton would later say. “He knows perhaps a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays intimately.”
While Churchill could thrill or weep (and Churchill was a cryer) at the swirl of Shakespearean drama, his intimate knowledge of the Bard wasn’t simply recreational. It was formative. The wit and the nerve, the agony and the ecstasy of the human experience told in pristine English was woven into the fabric of Churchill himself. To be sure, without the sweeping histories written by Macaulay and Gibbon, Churchill would not have offered the same epic style. But without Shakespeare, Churchill would likely never have galvanized the masses with phrases such as “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” or “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” or “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” In the wake of the war and pressed by colleagues about how history would treat him, Churchill quipped with a twinkle in his eye, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Shortly thereafter, Churchill did just that, penning a magisterial six-volume series on the Second World War.
In 1953, Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” At the presentation speech, Swedish writer Sigfrid Siwertz of the Nobel committee offered that “Churchill’s political and literary achievements are of such magnitude that one is tempted to resort to portray him as a Caesar who also has the gift of Cicero’s pen. Never before has one of history’s leading figures been so close to us by virtue of such an outstanding combination.”
One year later, in a Westminster Hall packed to celebrate Churchill’s achievements and his 80th birthday, he uncharacteristically deflected the outpouring of praise, remarking that the nation’s
will was resolute and remorseless, and as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.
To be sure, Winston Churchill was the product of his time, his upbringing, and his circumstances. But he was surely a product of all that he read and embedded in his soul. By reading, Churchill understood the stories. By memorizing, Churchill lived the stories. By loving, Churchill gave the stories back to each one of us with a scowl and a cigar clamped firmly between his teeth.
Today, over a half century later, it is up to us to read what the critic Matthew Arnold dubbed “the best which has been thought and said,” so that we, too, will be wise, will be formed, and will be prepared — should the circumstance arise — to answer history’s call to give the roar.
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