Alison Flood:

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.

In Milton’s own time, when memory development was a major art form, how unusual would this have been? In any case, whenever I teach a class in which I assign poetry, I require students to memorize fifty lines and recite them to me. It’s the most valuable assignment I use, and I would probably do better to throw out much of the writing I assign and just do more memorization.

Text Patterns

May 26, 2010


  1. At one time, I had a fair portion of Beowulf memorized in the original Old English. (By a “fair portion”, please don’t think I mean a thousand lines; no, I mean something like a couple hundred.)

    We have the invention of the printing press to thank for the fact that we no longer cultivate extreme feats of memory. Google is just the latest technology on which we’ve laid the blame, but before mass-printing (before writing in general, even), people had to remember The Iliad, Beowulf, The Aeneid, and so on.

    Check out The Art of Memory, by Frances A. Yates (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  2. I instinctively agree that memorizing poetry is a good thing. But why is it a good thing?

  3. "Nevertheless, certain contours do emerge. Scriptural and, in a wider sense, religious literacy ran strong, particularly in Protestant lands. The Authorized Version and Luther's Bible carried in their wake a rich tradition of symbolic, allusive, and syntactic awareness. Absorbed in childhood, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran hymnal and psalmody cannot but have marked a broad compass of mental life with their exact, stylized articulateness and music of thought. Habits of communication and schooling, moreover, sprang directly from the concentration of memory. So much was learned and known by heart — a term beautifully apposite to the organic, inward presentness of meaning and spoken being within the individual spirit. The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an afterculture." — George Steiner

  4. When I taught high school, students complained about memorizing poetry as if it were some "rote" assignment, or mere busywork, as opposed to the really creative work of writing about the poetry. I couldn't disagree more–memorization, whether it be of Paradise Lost, a passage of Paul's letters, or a canto of the Inferno, inevitably enriches our experience of the text itself as well as of the larger world. We go out to engage the world with a richer, more textured imagination.

    My pre-literate daughter has quite a few of her picture books memorized, and they're constantly springing to her lips when she runs into anything that reminds her of one of the stories. She's constantly reinforcing her own understanding of the stories as well as experiencing them as alive and in conversation with the world – it's so much fun to watch, and makes me embarrassed at how paltry my own memorized store is.

  5. I've actually been memorizing books, plays, and poetry since I was a child. It's possibly my favorite pastime. When I was fourteen, it was the book of Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of Matthew. My first few years of college, it was "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." At present I'm working on "The Waste Land," "King Lear," and Chapters 41 – 44 of "Moby-Dick."

  6. And, actually, I've been assisted in my efforts to memorize Eliot by an old recording I found online of Alec Guinness reading ten of his poems. He reads them in the voice of his "Obi-Wan" persona, which makes it doubly delightful. "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, you cannot say or guess…" He also does voices and accents. Finding a solid recording of a poem being read aloud is the surest way to remember it.

  7. And Boze, people these day tend to be amazed when you recite poetry. You feel like you have superpowers.

    Also, if you ever get a chance to listen to Eliot himself reading The Waste Land," you should. It's very funny, in a cringe-inducing sort of way.

  8. "People these days tend to be amazed when you recite poetry. You feel like you have superpowers."

    That's true, which is the reason there's been a surplus of films in recent years where the hero – or sometimes the villain, or both – acquires his gravitas through wreaking vengeance on his foes and quoting things. People must have noticed that this was always effective when Willy Wonka and Father Brown did it, because it's become a staple of our culture. You feel disappointed if the antagonist has a British accent, but no quotes. I'm thinking especially of the character V in "V for Vendetta," who recites lines from "Macbeth" and "Richard III" even as he hews his enemies to tiny bits.

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