The Reason Why (They Were Asked To Memorize)

On the 40th anniversary of the gunshots that ended Robert F. Kennedy’s life, the New York Times published remembrances by his children: Kerry Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy, II and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

This part from Kerry Kennedy was puzzling:

There was no quality my father admired more than courage, save perhaps love. I remember when one night after dinner he picked up the battered poetry book that was always somewhere at his side and read aloud Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” [link not in New York Times story –JRB] We listened aghast to the story of the soldiers whose commander orders them to ride into an ambush. They know they will be slaughtered, but they obey the command anyway. My father then explained that he and my mother were going on a trip and challenged us to memorize the poem while they were away. I did not win that contest, but one famous stanza has remained with me:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.

You may wonder why a father would ask his expanding brood of what would become 11 children to memorize a poem about slaughter and war. I think there were three reasons. He wanted us to share his love of literature and he wanted us to embrace challenges that appear daunting. But most of all, he believed it imperative to question authority, and those who failed that lesson did so at their peril.

But couldn’t the reason he had them learn this poem be the idea cited first:

There was no quality my father admired more than courage, save perhaps love.

And the family’s history would suggest a fairly literal reading as at least one of the reasons this poem was important to Robert F. Kennedy. Kerry Kennedy was born in 1959. Presumably, she wasn’t memorizing Tennyson before she was five years old so figure 1964 at the earliest. At that point both of Robert Kennedy’s older brothers had been killed in the service of the U.S. government. Joseph as a Navy pilot during in World War II. John of course as president. His Brother-in-Law the Marquess of Harrington was killed by a sniper during World War II. To me, at least, it suggests at least one possible additional reason the poem resonated.

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