I am in genuine awe of John Basinger, who has learned the whole of Paradise Lost by heart – all 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000-odd words. He completed his feat in 2001 and can still recite it today; his achievement is so astonishing that the journal Memory recently conducted a study on him. Testing Basinger by giving him two lines from the beginning or middle of each book, the academics found he could recall the next 10 lines each time. He achieved it, they believe, by ‘deeply analysing the poem’s structure and meaning over lengthy repetitions’. They suggest that ‘exceptional memorisers such as [Basinger] are made, not born, and that cognitive expertise can be demonstrated even in later adulthood’.
As well as awe, I’ll admit to feeling a little jealous of Basinger, because I hardly know any poetry by heart. When my mum was at school, it was something they were made to do, and she can recite scads and scads; I just called her to check, and she could reel off Upon Westminster Bridge, Ozymandias, Adlestrop and lots of Shakespeare. And she says her grandmother, brought up in the west of Ireland, knew hundreds of poems by heart.