John Basinger: Memorizing Milton's Paradise Lost

Here is someone named John Basinger who memorized all 10,565 lines of Paradise Lost:

Interesting commentary:

If you live near Connecticut, he performs one book every Sunday in Middletown.

I found out about him from this article:…

He started the project when he was 58 years old, and it was memorized over nine years.

Very impressive feat… :slight_smile:

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Impressive feat to say the least, most definitely :stuck_out_tongue:

I tried to memorize Paradise Lost once, before I ever heard of memory techniques and I still remember the first page of it.

I wonder if this guy used memory techniques, it seems like it because when the scientists gave him a random line he knew lines before and after it.

I’m sorry but nine years is not impressive to me. (Although a lot of people here will no doubt try to support the “impressiveness” of the “feat” by noting his age. But age is irrelevant to those who use mnemonics.)

Figure it this way: with mnemonics, you ought to be easily able to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day. And that’s a minimum! Since there are ONLY 14 lines, it should take you no longer than 1 hour (at the most!). You can see how easy it would be to memorize MORE than one a day.

If you divide 10,565 (the lines in Paradise Lost) by 14 (the lines in a sonnet), you’ll see that there are approximately 755 “sonnets” strung together. Now, having learned a mnemonic system means that you know that learning the lines of a poem doesn’t depend on the “type” of poem it is, sonnet or blank verse, haiku or epic. Memorizing words doesn’t depend on the material, it depends on the system you use.

Now then, if you divide 755 (sonnets) by 365 (days), you get about 2 sonnets (28 lines) per day (round it off to 29 lines). This means that in order to memorize Paradise Lost in ONE YEAR, all you have to do is memorize the equivalent of about 2 sonnets per day (29 lines per day x 365 = 10,585). Imagine what would happen if you memorized THREE sonnets in one day!

To put it another way, if you divide 10,565 lines by 365 you get 28.9 (round it off to 29), which is approximately the sum of 14 + 14, or 2 sonnets per day. Think about that: say it takes you one hour to memorize a sonnet. All you have to do is set aside 2 hours per day (they don’t have to be consecutive hours) for a year and you’ll have Paradise Lost firmly in your memory in ONE YEAR.

And setting aside only 1 “sonnet” per day (14/15 lines at 1 hour per day) and memorizing it in 2 years, is still, to my mind, a good job! In other words, if you can memorize 1 sonnet per day (how could you not?), then you can memorize Paradise Lost in 2 years!

Nine years? He must have been using a rote system, not mnemonics.

If you read the articles you will see that he was (apparently) not using mnemonics.

I do think that nine years of constant effort is incredibly impressive, as your analysis seems to have ignored:

  1. He may have had a life outside of memorising poetry. (He is, after all, a Professor Emeritus, actor, musician and author of numerous plays…)

  2. Repetitions…do the maths on those!


  1. Then I was correct in my assumption: he wasn’t using mnemonics.

  2. “…nine years of constant effort” may be “incredibly impressive” for certain tasks, but not for something that could have been done in only 1 or 2 years.

  3. We all have lives outside of poetry, but you can’t be serious if you think he couldn’t spare at least 1 hour per day memorizing 14 lines and setting them permanently in place (using mnemonics, of course). This goes especially for former professors in the literary field!

The fact that he spent nine years doesn’t indicate that he was “busy” with other aspects of his life. It could indicate that his system wasn’t efficient and that he didn’t know, despite his productive past, how best to manage his time in order to complete the task.

  1. Repetitions? No biggie there. As a matter of fact, the spaced repetitions would take even less time than the initial memorizing, since the words are already known and set in place.

I’m sure (and you should be sure too) that he made time for TV or ping pong or bird watching or some activity which, let’s face it, could have been spent on Paradise Lost. He could very well have put off the instant-gratification activities for at least a year or two. That hour-long TV show didn’t really have to be watched. What would he really have missed? A re-run of Law & Order? An episode of Dancing with the Stars?

And I’m not saying he should spend all his free time memorizing. I’m simply saying that he could always find, at a minimum, at least ONE hour per day in his waking life. (You know very well that that he spent time doing things that weren’t necessary.) I maintain that that length of time is not unreasonable. After all, he could even split that hour up into 2 parts = 7 lines in one half-hour period and 7 lines in another half-hour period later on.

We could ALL find that kind of time. The secret is time-management.

I rather agree with BuddingProspects: I am finishing (last canto this month!) Dante’s Hell, so it took me exactly 1.5 years to do it.
Averaging it at ˝ 135 triplets per canto, it means 4590 triplets, or 13770 lines (Miltons’s decasyllable roughly equivalent to Dante’s hendecasyllable).
I had two advantages though: first, I tried to use the loci method everywhere I could.
And second, and more important: Divina Commedia is composed in “chained triplets” (literary translation, sorry!) meaning rhyme groups like this: ABA BCB CDC etc - while Milton is in blank verse, and boy! how much did the rhyme helped me through!
… but I don not agree that repetitions are such a minor point: as the data increases, the time needed to keep everything perfect is large: these days I need ˝ 10 days per canto, then a pause of at least a week for repetitions


I didn’t say that repetitions (reinforcement) were a minor point, nor did I intend to imply that they were.

My point was that the doing of a repetition would take less time than it would take to create the mnemonics for that material in the first place. Once you’ve created images that are memorable and firmly set into place, it’s easy to go swiftly through the palace or along the journey; sometimes, indeed, as quickly as The Flash. You can run to places in the palace or along the journey that are out of the original order of initial construction. In other words, speed is on the side of repetitions.

Now, the more material you commit to a palace or journey, the more repetitions you’ll be doing–but only up to a certain point. Since we know that the space between repetitions grows farther and farther apart the more we practice, it actually means we’ll end up doing FEWER repetitions in the long run. The deeper we implant the material in our minds (due to repetitions), the less often we’ll have to do the repetitions themselves. The material will become part of our long-term memory; it will become automatic.

It could have been done more quickly with memory techniques, but I don’t think that the length of time it took detracts from the feat. If it took him even 15 years, I’d still be impressed. :slight_smile:

I think that it isn’t what one could do that is impressive; it’s what one does do.


Agreed Josh. Many start, but few have the staying power to see something like this through.

Which of course means many congratulations, Alexxx, for a great effort!

Can you tell us a bit more about how you achieved it - including keeping up the motivation :slight_smile:

What was the time split between initial memorising and repetitions? Do you know how many hours it actually took?


Memorizing Paradise Lost in 1 or 2 years, or 15 years ends up in the same place: you’ve got it all memorized. Fine.

However, over a given period of time, it becomes less impressive for me. Suppose somebody told you he’d memorized a sonnet by Shakespeare? You’d congratulate that person. But when he tells you he memorized it in 14 months because he’d done one line per month, you know you’d be less impressed, if at all.

I’m all for memorizing anything and I know well enough there are uncountable others who can do all this much faster than I do, or can do. And people should be encouraged and congratulated.

But I still say, “Well, after 15 years, you’d BETTER have that memorized!”

By the way, that averages out to 2 lines per day for 15 years. Does that really sound impressive?

Yes, definitely. The tortoise who crosses the finish line is more impressive to me than the hare who spends his entire life sleeping under a tree. :slight_smile:

Commitment is as impressive as speed. It’s better to take 15 years to accomplish a major memorization feat than to not accomplish the feat.


You’re impressed with his persistence.

I’m unimpressed with his technique, whatever it was. Not a great feat of memory if it took 15 years.

You crazy sentimental kid, you.

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Nothing sentimental about it. Memorizing the entire text of Paradise Lost is a great accomplishment no matter what the speed.

Memorizing text can be done faster with memory techniques (as Alexxx has demonstrated), but there is no need to belittle someone else’s accomplishment. It shows that incredible memorization feats also can be accomplished without the method of loci. It’s even possible that he did use the method of loci, but just didn’t have time to finish the project quickly.

There are few people in modern times with the dedication to accomplish something like this.

(Congratulations to Alexxx as well. I sent a private message.)

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I think that’s pretty damn impressive. So what if it took him x amount of years to do it. Memorizing text is one thing, but then knowing the text so well that you can perform it on stage fluidly and with emotion is pretty fricking hard.

Thanks Gavino, you’re very kind!
Concerning the “how”, I posted here a couple of times about it, and probably I will post a more comprehensive text, detailing my steps (I kept a diary…).
The motivation part is the post important. You have to love what you want to memorize of course, and I always loved the Divina Commedia.
Moreover, after discovering this new world with Moonwalking, I read a lot about it, Yates’s books in particular, and I remember being mentioned in it somewhere how the fact of memorizing a text was an action giving you much more than the simple easy accessibility of it whenever you wanted… What I too discovered is a new, intimate, relationship with the text: it really becomes a part of you. As an example, I often found myself in my daily life to see Hell’s scenes popping up by themselves, as a metaphor of what I was seeing/doing/hearing… I have to say that it really changed my life.


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Alexx is spot on regarding the motivation factor. In my experience, motivation is at least 50% (perhaps as much as 90%) of such memory feats. As I recounted elsewhere on this website, I’ve got the entire Hamlet play in memory. It took 18 months, and I do not believe the mnemotechnical mental tricks alone would have been enough to sustain the stamina required for that period of time. Experiencing Shakespearean language, and especially Hamlet, is what I imagine crack cocaine to be; therefore, to say the least, I was motivated to get it all in my head and keep it there.

John Basinger is a performance artist/actor, and his particular accomplishment makes him a performance artist extraordinaire. A powerful motivation may be the 90% explanatory factor in actors who must memorize extraordinary amounts of performance material, but nobody thinks of them as memory athletes of the phenomenal Nelson Dellis variety. I spent a couple hours at the bookstore theatrical arts section to see what advice is given to memorize scripts, and broused scores of books on acting technique. The memory techniques most important for the theatrical stage include not only language rhythms but also body language and physical “vocalization” factors. I did not come across any major advice to use the mnemotechnics that are prominently displayed at the memory championships. It is probably safe to say that memory palaces, major systems, and the like are not necessary on stage or on a movie set. These arenas are a world apart from the memory competitions scene. Marilu Henner (actress, and of Superior Autobiographical Memory fame) says (in her book about memory) that her particular memory weirdness is no advantage in memorizing TV scripts, for which she says she has merely an above average skill.

BuddingProspects is probably correct that Paradise Lost could have been memorized faster. Perhaps he could prove it himself using “pure” mnemotechnics. An interesting experiment would be for him to try it with NO DESIRE OR AESTHETIC APPRECIATION for Milton’s poetry. I would bet that without such motivation, he would likely fail. BuddingProspects (or Ed Cooke, or Gunther Karsten, or Solomon Shereshevsky, or Nelson Dellis) might be able to do it, but could they be hired to perform it on stage to act it out?

Paradise Lost is one of the reasons I got into memory. I am frustrated that it may take fifteen years but then I’ll be 43 so that’s still good.

With regards to learning with no motivation: sometimes I’m doing things when all hope and motivation for it is gone and it brings you closer to the meaning of doing. Upkeep, routine and class for the sake of class. It’s kind of a healthy punishment for myself.


What does it do?

We had alexxx who’s, very impressively, memorised Dante, and I would like to commit hard-hitters like Sir Edwin Arnold’s blank translation of The Bhagwat Gita to memory. And I have fantastical ideas about how these lines will relax me internally and as an unfolding wisdom.

Obviously these works would be fantastic to recite but I wanted to know - does memorising such gems have an effect on your soul?

I would imagine that the time spent doing it would add a sense of sincerity and turn it into knowledge won… So that’s cool too… like getting it tatted… it shows at least some degree of commitment, but is that all you get? If so, fine - even then - but i’m asking to see if it has any other kind of effect on your subjective sense of inner quality.

Sorry for the late reply (1 year!),
but for what is worth to your question “does memorising such gems have an effect on your soul?” I would answer immediately yes.
I still haven’t finished with the Divine Comedy - though the memorization rate is fairly constant since when I begun:
I still have one year left to reach the end - I saw that somebody may object to such a slow pace - but why hurry? It’s not a race.

From my personal experience, the strongest effect has been the feeling of total, inner possess of such a treasure. Never, even with my most beloved authors, I felt this way: always there was the book and there was me - but always separated… to memorize something this way makes them to coincide, I dont know how to explain it better sorry.

Something else: the feeling that my inner spiritual space became fuller thanks to the presence of this poem. At every moment it can happen that an event, a person, something you’re reading, trigger a place in the poem that is immediately there, and it illuminates with a new meaning what is happening then.

Another effect - the total lack of boredom or moments during the day when the mind seem to switch off: the instant I get up from my bed I start the repetition on the last Canto, which I’m usually able to finish in time for breakfast (if I’m a bit late with it I recite loud the last part to wake up my wife: she seems to enjoy it :-). No more boring commuter travels to/from work: I always recite it loud while on the bike/motorbike: it is pure pleasure.

And a last effect: the pleasure derived from the constant toil. In a sense I feel it made me a bit stronger with myself, not allowing me in the last 7-8 years to pause an activity so strange.