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 Land. Hairy 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
British Museum Nero exhibition planned for late 2020 – British Museum Blog
Playmobil will be launching a Myth range in 2020 – Twitter