I’ve always wanted to learn lots of poems by heart.
No, I’ll rephrase that - I’ve always wanted to have learned lots of poems by heart.
The problem is that I do not find memorizing easy even though I’m old enough to have had to learn poetry by heart at school, all of which I’ve forgotten except for a few scattered lines.
However I have made quite a few attempts over the years with the result that I know the opening lines, and the opening lines only, of a large but rather weird selection of poems and books.
Let’s see what I can remember:
Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la dirrita via era smarrita
Ahi! Quant’…. um er
Tel qu’en lui-meme enfin l’eternite le change
Le poete suscite avec son glaive nu… er um
Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree
Whose taste brough death into the world and all our woe
Sing heavenly Muse who on the ? of Oreb or of Zion
Didst first instruct…
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the abyss. (…) the spirit of God moved upon the waters (?). And God said Let there be light and there was light. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
I can do a lot more like that. Pretty impressive, eh? Anyone able to recognise the mangled remains of these great passages?**
What’s the reason for this abysmal performance? Well partly of course it’s that learning by heart takes effort and application, and also constant revision and renewal. But it’s also that I’ve never really found a satisfactory method. As soon as the words seem to be in my head, they start flowing out again. The idea of learning a long poem like “Paradise Lost” is demotivating not just because of the immense effort involved but because I’m quite sure that by the time I’d reached the end I’d long ago have forgotten the beginning.
Yet our ancestors don’t seem to have had too much problem with memorizing. The Iliad and the Odyssey are supposed to have been transmitted orally. The Vedic Sutras have been transmitted orally for thousands of years so accurately there are no variant readings. To be a bishop in the ancient church, you had to know all the psalms off by heart (it takes over five hours to recite them), Sir Winston Churchill recounted in My Early Life that his father had committed to memory long passages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And a more recent (fictional) example of our failing ability to remember, in the wedding with which The Godfather opens - which is set in 1945 - everyone knows the words of the Italian songs. In the Godfather Part III - which is set in the late 70s - everyone stumbles over the words.
My own personal reason for not having learned any poems successfully since my schooldays is that I have never found a satisfactory method for doing it. I’ve tried all the methods that a Google search will reveal, without much success with any of them.
But just recently I’ve found a method which seems to work better. I’d be interested to know if it works for anyone else.
1. Take one chunk of the passage at a time. A verse, short paragraph or long sentence is about right.
2. Read it to yourself over and over trying each time to say as much as you can from memory
3. Keep doing this until you can repeat the whole chunk at least once from memory
4. Then revise the chunk to yourself at intervals without referring to the book
5. Say as much as you can as accurately as you can, but don’t refer to the book. Force your mind to reconstruct the passage as far as it can without prompting.
6. Do this several times, and then refer back to the passage. Repeat 4 to 6 until you’ve got it pat. Then move on to the next chunk.
The key to this is in the forcing yourself to remember rather than giving your mind an easy crutch.
** The opening lines of 1) Dante’s Divine Comedy 2) Mallarmé’s Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe 3) Milton’s Paradise Lost 4) The Book of Genesis (King James version).