Weekend Reading: The Quirks of Memory

Normal weekend service will now be resumed… Hope you’ve all had a lovely holiday!


While I’ve mostly been avoiding the internet over Christmas, it’s been difficult to ignore the fuss about Boris Johnson reciting the Iliad from memory.



Actually the trouble was caused not by the recording (which was made quite a few years ago), but by the presentation of it on Twitter to score political points.




As you can imagine, this set everybody off – classicists and non-classicists alike. Some people were very impressed; others said that rote learning is not impressive. Some people said that they too could recite the Iliad from memory; others pointed out that Boris’ recitation isn’t flawless. Some people suggested that recitation brings Classics into disrepute because it misrepresents what we do; others saw it as a representation of Etonian elitism. It’s all been rumbling on for weeks.

And since I do love to jump on a bandwagon…


My response to this is to sidestep the whole debate and focus on what, as a teacher, I see as the really important aspect: the ability to memorise classical texts in the original.

This taps into a concern I often come across, particularly in teaching Latin and Greek to adult learners – the worry about memory. This worry, unsurprisingly, grows as we head towards exam time.

It’s certainly true that as people get older it can become more difficult to memorise things – and for a lot of my students who are retired, in particular, it can feel like a huge obstacle. However, I also think that people tend to underestimate their own abilities. Displays like Boris Johnson’s can sometimes make that worry worse.

My own memory is mostly awful. I have absolutely no general knowledge, as my school General Knowledge Team could attest (that’s a story for another day – but there was a significant amount of public humiliation involved). My memory for information (dates in particular) is appalling. But I do have lots of poetry remnants lying around in the dark corners of my memory, ready to be recited at a moment’s notice. It’s not a particular talent; it’s just that poems seem to stick when facts don’t.

So I thought I’d do an audit of the poetry that’s in my head, purely out of curiosity. Here’s some of the verse debris I found:


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Yes, it appears I know all of it (except for a dodgy bit in the middle). No idea why.

The Lady of Shalott. Again, I can recite the whole thing, but don’t actually remember learning it.

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. The Road Not Taken (evidently I had a Robert Frost phase). I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth (Pam Ayres seems to be lurking in one of the darker corners of my memory, along with Edward Lear). Stop All the Clocks (thanks to Four Weddings, I think); Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night; And Death Shall Have No Dominion (from a bleak existential phase as a teenager when I wore a lot of black). The Gruffalo (it rhymes, so it counts). Prufrock – also The Four Quartets and most of The Waste LandHairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. Two Shakespearean sonnets. Some very dodgy limericks.

Oh, and Classics, of course. I have a few complete Horatian Odes in my head; selected chunks of the Metamorphoses and a few poems from the Amores; also quite a bit of the Aeneid. Not much Greek, if I’m honest.



I also remember learning Spike Milligan’s classic Have a Nice Day when I was 8:


… ‘How long,’ said the man who was drowning. ‘Will it take for the Doc to arrive?’

‘Not very long,’ said the man with the disease. ‘Till then try staying alive.’

‘Very well,’ said the man who was drowning. ‘I’ll try and stay afloat.

By reciting the poems of Browning

And other things he wrote.’


There are a couple of points I want to make about my random collection of memorised weirdness. One is that the people who tend to remember poetry are those who have a specific interest in poetry – and this is not a requirement for becoming a classicist. The only reason I have so many poetry remnants lying around in my memory is that I’ve always loved literature., and have been accumulating snippets for decades. If I were interested in Roman coin types or ancient hairstyles or obscure uses of the gerund, I wouldn’t be any less a classicist – but my head probably wouldn’t be quite so full of poetry.

Another point is that anyone can memorise things, without particularly trying or even noticing – as long as you’re memorising things that matter to you. You may not be able to recite Homer or Coleridge – but you might know every lyric ever written by Abba, or know all of Delia’s recipes by heart. You might be able to trounce everybody at the pub quiz on the sports round. You might remember every single word from the school play you performed in when you were 12. Give it a try for yourself – spend a while rooting through your memory to see what sort of things you’ve learned by heart in the past. You might be surprised at what your memory can do.

For a lot of the students I teach, the problem isn’t memorising; it’s that the form of memorising they’re being asked to do (verb tables, for instance) is different to the things they’ve been learning throughout their lives.

Sometimes the trick to memorising is simply to fit what you need to learn into a form that your memory recognises – like putting a list to music, if you’re good at learning song lyrics, or colour-coding things if you have a good memory for visual patterns, or making it into a quiz if you learn best by being challenged. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

So yes, I’m impressed by Boris’ performance, and I’m tempted to go off and learn some of the Iliad myself, because it might be useful on those very rare occasions when The Rime of the Ancient Mariner isn’t appropriate. But really, I’d rather spend my time helping other people with their memorising. So if you have any tips, or could pass on some strategies that have worked for you, I’d be grateful for your comments…!



Further Boris-Iliad Reading

On recitations – Topica

Johnson and his Homer – The Philological Crocodile 

The Boris Controversy – TLS 




Other Links from around the Classics Internet

(not many, because I’ve been mostly ignoring the internet over the holiday!)



Roman treasure – BBC News 


Comment and opinion

Women doing ancient history in 2019 – Everyday Orientalism 

Finds of 2019 – Vindolanda Blog 

Book about learning ancient Greek – The New Yorker

The architect Aristarcha – The Historian’s Hut 

Agnodice of Athens – Ancient Herstories 

Scholarship on ancient theatre – The British Academy Blog 

The fascination with Cleopatra – The Week

Troy in art – Art UK 




Podcasts, video and other media

Roman British women – BBC Radio 4 


Upcoming excitement

British Museum Nero exhibition planned for late 2020 – British Museum Blog

Playmobil will be launching a Myth range in 2020 – Twitter


Playmobil Daedalus and Icarus – there are also sets of the labours of Hercules and the Argonauts. I’ll be saving up…!

11 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: The Quirks of Memory

  1. Okay, I’m going to need the playmobil! For Christmas I got my four year old daughter Cleopatra and Julius Caesar playmobil because she’s Cleopatra obsessed! I can see more in her future! 😹


  2. Fascinating stuff. A history teacher I worked with not all that long ago made all his pupils memorise reams of his own (beautifully neatly) handwritten (photocopied) notes. Lots of recall tests in class and timed essay writing (all from memory – no looking back at the notes) and he got the best GCSE subject results every year. And the kids (oddly, you might think) loved it – presumably because they KNEW they knew their stuff… 🤔🤓😁


  3. Hi Cora,

    I shouldn’t like to say that Mr. Johnson doesn’t engage critically with the text and I’ve no idea if the guy can speak Greek actively, but I’d suggest that those are more important learning tools than rote recitation.

    I doubt I’ve ever memorised any poetry at all, probably since I prefer reading a wide range rather than narrowly focusing on any one text. There’s just too much good lit out there to read the same thing over and over. In our Greek σύνοδος we paraphrase the text from memory and ask questions, both in the target language, to aid memory (LLPSI style), help retain the ideas expressed in the text and use the language actively without being fussy about the exact wording of the original.

    Memorisation of vocab is a different issue and of course important. I tend to do this by using new words actively in context rather than by rote learning of lists, although some rote learning can also compliment this. If used actively, the associations evoked by putting words into a personal context help to facilitate memorisation.

    Maybe, it would be nice to have a go at memorising a poem, but I’ve no idea which to go for!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The active speaking of ancient languages is a whole new level of learning – or it would be for me! But then, I chose to study ancient languages BECAUSE people wouldn’t make me speak them…! It’s a tremendous skill.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As always, I really enjoyed reading this however, I think I should give full warning that my comment could be long and, consistent for me, rambling.

    I have seen Boris reciting some of the Iliad and saw him on the Rome v Greece debate against Mary Beard. For me, it seemed more as a party trick, whilst at the same time giving an air of intellect and scholarship by being able to reference an epic in its original language. I have no idea whether hi pronunciation was correct or even whether it was a true reflection of Homer. I didn’t feel particularly intimidated or inspired by the recollection. I do think the ‘this is not what classics is about’ view is slightly misplaced though as I watched as he became more animated and inflected as the recital progressed and thought how the epic was received by a largely illiterate audience from the travelling bards – is this what it was like? It was so far from other versions on YouTube where the delivery seems so much more ‘mystical’.

    Could I slightly disagree with you on the memory and recital of poetry being linked to an interest? My general knowledge is, I would say, pretty good with film narrative being a particular party piece. However, I have very little interest in poetry, yet I am still able to recite the Jabberwocky, Daffodils and Home thoughts from Abroad. Not the length of the Ancient Mariner, granted but what I tend to do is remember reasonable snippets from others. I put this down to my schooling where, even as an eight year old, we had class games of reciting poetry. We would stand in a line at the front and each boy would recite the next line of the poem, If you got it wrong you would drop to the bottom of the line – the object of course was to get to the top. There is something to be said to learning by rote after all!

    So, with regards to the older generation. I started as an OU undergrad in my mid 50s. Yes, I stressed about forgetting things, concluding that I would hear words in my left ear which would push the equivalent amount of information out of the right. It is surprising though how much is retained and can be recalled. I found this particularly with Latin. Doing the old A297 it all came flooding back. I have to say at this point that my Latin teacher (who alas passed away last year) was to one teacher everyone has who has a major influence. 6’ 7” of Latin fury – 80 word tests every Thursday (pass mark 77) – he was impressively brilliant.

    So, going back to memory – the old ‘uns shouldn’t worry too much, it’s all in there somewhere. From a Classics perspective, like poetry, I just keep snippets that jog – Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris etc. or civis Romanus sum or (coming out of an exam) nunc bibendum est to name a few. It makes me feel intelligent and I might know what I am talking about (like Boris?).

    So, the way I learnt was by rote and as far as Latin is concerned just practice and test. As soon as I started A297 all I could think about was:
    Mensa Mensea
    Mensa Mensea
    Mensam Mensas
    Mensae Mensarum
    Mensea Mensis
    Mensa Mensis

    And the same with Amo…. just working from the basics. Believe it or not hic haec hoc was like visiting an old friend.

    I know this has been more than a little indulgent but could I please leave with one phrase I was taught – I have waited 50 years for the opportunity to use it but it has always stayed with me:
    March, July, October, May
    have the Ides on the fifteenth day
    And the Nones on the seventh.

    Who says we don’t retain anything?


    1. Hooray – always happy to see a good Ides/Nones rhyme!

      Your points about memory are reassuring – and I’ll pass them on to my A276 students who are getting twitchy about the exam already!

      You’re right to disagree – learning isn’t always about interest. Sometimes it’s early training – sometimes, as in your case, it’s competition! Speaking as a former schoolteacher, I can confirm that competition is a pretty effective incentive…!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the rhyme. As I said I have only been sitting on that for 50+ years! At last….

        At the risk of being drowned out by the sound of my grannie sucking eggs, if they haven’t already done this, please remind your students about Quizlet – free and downl;aodable onto phones and laptops – I made so many flashcards. Also I would recommend GCSE Latin (lite is free and Vocab is £1.99) as it has tutorials but also good test facilities. It is in AppStore – not sure if it’s available on android as I have an iPhone, worth a look though.


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