This man memorized Paradise Lost — and you can too!
At a time most of us don’t bother to memorize phone numbers, thanks to our mobile phones, and GPS makes it unnecessary to remember even how to get home from work, a 76-year-old community college teacher has committed Paradise Lost to memory.
That’s John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a loooong narrative poem we’re talking about — 12 books, 10,565 lines and 60,000 words, according to the Guardian, or about the same amount of verbiage as a 350-page novel, adds the Hartford Courant.
Now psychologists from the journal Memory have tested Basinger, finding not only is his feat genuine, but it is also reproducible. “Exceptional memorizers” like Basinger, Memory reports, “are made, not born, and that cognitive expertise can be demonstrated even in later adulthood.”
The study, conducted by John Seamon, a professor in Wesleyan University’s psychology department, went like this: Researchers read two lines chosen at random from Paradise Lost, with Basinger challenged to recite the next 10. His success rate? Ninety percent.
Basinger is thrilled to have his achievement granted scientific verification. “For one thing, it establishes that this is not folklore,” he said. “It’s proven that I have done this; there’s no way that I could have faked this.”
According to the Courant, Basinger began memorizing Paradise Lost in 1993, after he retired from teaching theater and sign language at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn. He was looking for a challenge — he wanted “to do something big for the Millennium” — and he hoped to revive an oral storytelling tradition “that has pretty much died away.”
Basinger spent eight years memorizing the poem, a few lines a day — often while at the gym. This, says Seamon, supports earlier research indicating that brief daily sessions work better than long, intense cramming sessions.
“As I finished each book, I began to perform it and keep it alive in repertory while committing the next one to memory,” Basinger says. “The goal eventually became not just a series of performances, but to do all twelve books on the same occasion.”
Now according to his website, Basinger keeps up a busy schedule performing sections of the poem. He’s popular with teachers, students, general audiences and slam poetry events. He’s twice performed Paradise Lost in its entirety, in 2001 and 2008, a feat that takes three eight-hour days.
Basinger has an ordinary memory in every day life, reports the Courant — he forgot one appointment with the reporter, and called to apologize. Apparently if he can do it, anyone can. And Seamon says taking on fresh intellectual challenges is a way to stave off age-related cognitive decline.
Does all this make you feel inadequate?
The last poem I memorized, “If,” Rudyard Kipling’s anthem to stout manliness, was for an eighth-grade program. I almost know Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” by heart, it’s so short and lovely and pungent (it has a very dirty word in the first line).
I once thought of learning my all-time favorite poem, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but it seemed too long and it made me tired to think about. I just checked: It’s comes in at around 300 words. I blame the pedagogical trends of my childhood– I was educated in the ’60s and early ’70s, when memorization and recitation fell out of favor. It couldn’t be as simple as my daydreamy laziness. Right?
In the interests of preserving mental acuity and, perhaps, making ourselves unbearable at parties, let’s all commit to memorizing one poem — of any length. I’ll have another go at Marvell (“Had we but world enough and time/ This coynes, lady, were no crime…”).
Meanwhile, you share with us a favorite poem you’d like to commit to memory. C’mon! It’ll be fun!