Peter T.: Why did you recite in front of "whoever was dying"? Oh … never mind. (Grin)
Yeah, I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address (which I could still recite), the first few sentences of the Declaration of Independence ("When, in the course of human events…"), the Preamble to the US Constitution ("We, the people…"). I don't recall having to recite them, though; I think we had to write them out to prove we had memorized them. Good thing, too. It would have been awfully tedious to listen to a whole class of kids reciting the Gettysburg address.
I would be interested in knowing: what documents in other countries are considered of equal importance?
The Pledge of Allegiance doesn't count, does it?
Plus there were numerous short poems, and excerpts from long poems, that are mostly forgotten now. I can remember only a few titles: Longfellow's "Hiawatha," "Evangeline" and "The Village Smithy." Poe's "The Bells" and "Ulalume." Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." ("Many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.") Something-or-other by Emily Dickinson. I think there was one of Shakespeare's sonnets, and a speech or two: Hamlet's soliloquy "To be or not to be…", and Macbeth's "Is this a dagger which I see before me…?" Also, "Kublai Khan," ("In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree, where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…") "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," ("It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three…") "Dover Beach." ("… till human voices wake us, and we drown.") Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
One thing that has stuck with me is several verses from Poe's "The Raven" ("Once upon a midnight dreary…"). I loved that poem, and I believe I memorized several more verses than the teacher required. I also voluntarily memorized a big chunk of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." ("Let us go, then, you and I, while the evening is stretched out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…") I loved that poem, too. I found it vaguely funny and sad at the same time. Funny because of the (deliberately) awkward figures of speech; sad because the narrator, like me, seemed to be shy and lonely and awkward when trying to talk to a woman.
Stage fright is a funny thing. I'll bet some of those people who hated to "recite" are the same ones who could sing a song with no trouble. I have known good actors who would fall apart at the thought of singing or improvising, and I have known people who could do brilliant improvisations but wouldn't think of auditioning for a play because "I could never memorize all those lines."