The “By Heart” book of 101 poems, edited by the poet Ted Hughes, (that Josh recommended) arrived yesterday and it’s got some great poems in it, as well as a good introduction by Hughes which discusses memorization by visualization. It doesn’t go into loci, but it’s a good refutation of the “rote” system and a validation of the “route” system.

I memorized the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, “Ozymandias” yesterday. It’s a sonnet in iambic pentameter, and includes the famous line, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” I read somewhere that people sometimes misquote this as “Look upon” instead of “Look on.” If you keep in mind the iambic pentameter rhythm, it will jolt you back into saying “on” instead of “upon.”

The rhythm also helped me on the line, “The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.” I had been leaving out the “them,” but I realized that there weren’t enough beats in the line, so I went back to the poem and picked up the word “them.”

Lots of Shakespeare and Frost in the book, too.

Thanks for recommending it, Josh!


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Can you please describe the steps you followed to memorise Ozymandias?

I tried memorising it by linking images created by each line and phrase but that didnt work too well and I gave up.


Actually, credit for discovering that book should go to Jacob. I bought it based on his suggestion in the comments… :slight_smile:

Good choice of poem. I’m going to memorize it too. I made a memory challenge page about it here:


There are a different ways that poetry can be memorized; or rather, there are many tools you can use to memorize poetry. Some, I’m not sure we’re even consciously aware of. And everyone seems to have slightly different techniques that work for them. You might try experimenting with a few of these techniques I’ll list here:

  1. Structure. I start with looking at the structure of a poem. This is a sonnet with an odd rhyme scheme. Each line is iambic pentameter, so you can literally count the beats for each line. While you’re practicing count on your fingers the beats of each line and if you have too few or too many go back to the poem to see what you have wrong.

  2. Loci. I tend to place each stanza in a different memory location. For instance, for Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I placed the four stanzas in four different corners of my office and mentally placed images there that would remind me of certain words. However, for Ozymandias, I only used one locus since it’s a fairly short poem. My locus was at a beach I see every day, where I put the statue of Ozymandias (I used the face of Ozzie Nelson on the fallen statue to tip-off the title Ozymandias).

  3. Image replacement and linking. This is the one you said didn’t work for you, but maybe you tried to do too much with it. I don’t rely on it for every word (though some people do). For instance, on the line “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,” I kept thinking it was “I am Ozymandias” until I remembered an old comedy sketch by Bill Dana where he says, “My name Jose Jimenez.” When I get to that line I see Bill Dana and I remember that line. However, the line I had the most trouble with was the first. I had to consciously create an active image that linked each word,“I met a traveler from an antique land.” I imagined a gigantic eye, then a NY Met baseball player on Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, coming out of (from) and antique shop. That’s way more than I usually use, but I found that by the second day, I didn’t need it, and I had the line. And that’s another thing: these image and action props tend to fall away after a few days or weeks and you can just get into the flow of the poem, much like a song.

  4. Rhyme. This seems obvious, but sometimes internal rhymes help. The line, “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,” - well and tell set you up for the first and second halves of the line. And there are some not-so-obvious ones: in the second line (Who and Two).

  5. Poetic devices (assonance, alliteration, etc.) - I use these a lot. For instance, alliteration with “sand, sunk,” “cold command,” “hand, heart,” “boundless, bare,” “lone, level,” and even something like “pedestal, appear.”

  6. Say it out loud. I think this is important because it gives you the time to hear the poem and the right word tends to fall into place after a while. Just memorizing in your head doesn’t give you the auditory tips, and it doesn’t allow the poem the time to be performed.

  7. Divide up the poem. You can divide a poem by lines, but in Ozymandias, I found that the lines carried over to the next line, so I divided it according to meaning. So, instead of the first line just being, “I met a traveler from an antique land,” I have “I met a traveler from an antique land who said.” So, here’s how I divided the poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert.
Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies,
whose frown And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive,
stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay Of that colossal wreck,
boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I’ve gone on a bit here, but my point is that memorizing poetry is personal and specific. Whatever gets the job done. But again, after some time, these techniques tend to fall away from each poem like unnecessary scaffolding and you are left with the poem itself.

This is just my way of approaching it. I’d love to hear from others.


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Oh boy, finals are over and I now have a project to begin my morning!

Another thing I’ve found useful is finding a good recording of someone else going through the poem and listening to it. Example: http://goo.gl/j1fxS

I found Hughes’ introduction to the book online. (http://www.trentu.ca/english/en340/en340_98wp.html#memorizing) Here it is:

Memorising Poetry

There are many reasons for learning poems. But memorising them should be like a game. It should be a pleasure.

For those of us who need help (nearly all of us), the method most commonly used in schools is learning by rote. This is only one of several memorising techniques. And for most people it is the least effective. The tedium of learning by rote was long thought to be a good thing in English classrooms: disciplinary and character-building. But the cost can be heavy, since it creates an aversion to learning and to poetry.

Those who dislike rote-learning yet still wish to gain the many powers that come with knowledge can choose from an array of other less laborious, more productive, more amusing techniques.

These techniques systematically exploit the brain’s natural tactics for remembering. Recently I heard one sound technician in a theatre questioning the other about the letters GBH, which kept appearing in some music-schedule for a play. It was explained: GBH was one of the actors. But instead of trying to remember the actor’s name, the technician had simply dubbed him Ginger Beer Hair. This is the sort of thing we all do almost without thinking about it.

But why should the actor’s name be so forgettable while the idea of his head being a foaming mass of Ginger Beer Hair is instantly and without effort unforgettable - and amusing into the bargain?

One of the brain’s spontaneous techniques for fixing anything in the conscious memory, in other words for making it easy to recall, is to connect it with a visual image. And the more absurd, exaggerated, grotesque that image is, the more unforgettable is the thing to which we connect it. One easy technique for memorising poems uses visualised images in this way.

Basically, this particular technique is good for memorising lists. For example:

  • A peaty burn (stream)
  • A brown horse
  • An avalanche
  • A roaring lion
  • A hen-coop
  • A comb
  • A fleece
  • Foam
  • A flute
  • A lake
  • Home
might be dealt with as follows:

For ‘peaty burn’ it might be enough simply to imagine ,like a frame in a colour film, a dark torrential mountain stream coming down among boulders. But to make sure it is ‘burn’ and not ‘stream’ that you remember, it might be better to imagine the stream actually burning, sending up flames and smoke: a cascade of dark fire, scorching the banks.

The next item, ‘brown horse’, now has to be connected to the burning stream. The most obvious short-cut is to put the horse in the torrent of fire, trying to scramble out - possibly with its mane in flames.

The next item, ‘avalanche’, now has to be connected to the brown horse. Imagine the burnt horse fleeing across the hillside from the burning stream, creating an avalanche, and galloping among the big, rolling rocks, its mane smoking.

The next item, ‘a roaring lion’, has to be connected to the avalanche. The boulders could be imagined pouring down onto the head of a huge, sleepy lion, who wakes up shaking them from his mane and roaring.

The next item, ‘a hen-coop’, has to be connected to that lion. Imagine the lion fleeing from the boulders to hide in–of all places–a hen-coop. He squeezes himself inside, grabbing and swallowing the hens to make more room.

The next item, ‘a comb’, has to be connected to the coop. The lion has burst from the coop and gone. So now you construct a rickety, awkward, great comb out of the splintered slats of the hen-coop - try combing your own hair with it.

And so on. If each image is ‘photographed’ mentally, as on a screen, it will not be forgotten easily. And each image will bring on the next which has been connected to it. Even when you are remembering a very long list, the procedure is quite small-scale and automatic because you are never remembering more than one connection at a time and each connection provides you with the next. The rolling rocks produce - surprise - the lion. The lion produces - out of nowhere and against all expectations - the hen-coop. The hen-coop produces - can it be right? - the ridiculous wooden comb.

Theoretically, if each connecting image is visualised successfully, the list can be endless, because each step will always produce the next.

The same technique is used by professional memorisers for memorising poems. Some readers may have recognised the list above. The first four lines of Hopkins’s poem ‘Inversnaid’ go:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

Using the simple technique described, the lines can be memorised phrase by phrase by converting the poem to a kind of list. The same list as above, but now based on the words of the poem:

  • Darksome burn
  • Horseback brown
  • Rollrock highroad
  • Roaring down
  • Coop
  • Comb
  • Fleece
  • Foam
  • Flutes
  • Lake
  • Home

In each case the visual image will be enough to do two things: to bring back the verbal phrase in which it is now rooted and to bring on the next image. Once visually fixed, whenever the sequence is started with the image of the mountain torrent of dark fire the whole film will replay itself and the words of the poem will come with it as the soundtrack.

Hopkins’s poem is made up of solid objects. With poems composed in more abstract language the memoriser has to use more ingenuity - but since anything is permitted a way can always be found.

Some may meet a difficulty in releasing the imagination enough to produce the visual images for the cartoon. But practice helps. The release of playful imagination also releases energy, and the brain soon becomes skilful at what it enjoys. Others may feel reluctant to add such an arbitrary cartoon accompaniment to the sacred words of a solemn poem. But the cartoon is only a first stage. The whole point is to get the poem, by any means, foul or fair, into the head. After a few replays, the words enter the long-term memory, and the cartoon begins to fall away.

In this description I have assumed that the memoriser’s mental film of unforgettable images will always supply the perfect wording of each phrase. How does this happen, if each unforgettable image is anchored, as a rule, to no more than one key word in the phrase to which it corresponds? Is that one key word really enough to trigger the memory of all the other words in the phrase? In practice, for most people, where the text being learned is a poem worth learning, the answer is yes. Conscious use of visual imagination brings us to the key-word - but at that point another kind of imagination takes over. Without conscious effort, what then comes to our help is musical or audial memory. In many people, the audial memory is much stronger than the visual. It is wide open to any distinct pattern of sounds. It likes such patterns, and has an extraordinary ability to hang on to them whether we want them or not - as with musical melodies.

The closest thing to a musical melody in a line of verse is the pattern of sounds made by the sequence of syllables. That pattern includes rhythm and overall inflection along with the alternation of vowels and consonants. The stronger the pattern is, the more memorable the line will be. I remember back in 1959 Heinz advertised a competition fora catch-phrase to advertise their beans. Following the precedent of old oral poetry, using alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, I came up with ‘Whoever minds how he dines demands Heinz.’ I realised this was cumbersome, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head, so I took it no further, and sent it in. What they ended up with, of course, was the inspired ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ - using exactly the same principle as I had, but in that simpler, more concentrated pattern. Even nonsense becomes memorable if the sound pattern is strong enough. The line in WilfredOwen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’

None will break ranks though nations trek from progress

is not exactly meaningless, but is so rhetorically over-blown that only two things justify its place in the poem: it sounds magnificent and it is unforgettable. The interplay of ‘breakra-’, ‘trekfro-’ and ‘progress’ is glaringly contrived but, as in the old Welsh poetry from which Owen drew the system, it does what it is meant to do - it roots itself directly in the nerves of the ear.

These examples rely on a dominant pattern in the inter-woven textures of the syllables. But a line can be just as unforgettable where the dominant pattern is one of rhythm, as in ‘Tom, Tom, the piper’s son.’ Or where it is one of inflection, as in ‘Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!’,which Yeats called the most passionate phrase in the language.

Where lines of verse are less strikingly patterned, it maybe that the audial imagination grasps them less tenaciously, less automatically. But in most verse worth remembering, the lines always yield some kind of pattern, though often the pattern is hidden, and not so much ‘heard’ as ‘sensed through hearing’. In our own language verbal sounds are organically linked to the vast system of root-meanings and related associations, deep in the subsoil of psychological life, beyond our immediate awareness or conscious manipulation. It is the distinction of poetry to create strong patterns in these hidden meanings as well as in the clearly audible sounds. The hidden patterns are, if anything, much the stronger. The audial memory picks up those patterns in the depths from what it hears at the surface. And they too are difficult to forget. We feel them almost as a physical momentum of inevitability, a current of syntactical force purposefully directed like the flight of an arrow in the dark. What is essential, then, in memorising verse, is to keep the audial faculty wide open, and not so much look at the words as listen for them - listening as widely, deeply and keenly as possible, testing every whisper on the air in the echo-chamber of your whole body. as you bend more narrowly over the job of making that film of brightly coloured images.

Memory techniques of the kind I have described, using strongly visualised imagery, were invented in the ancient world and became the basis of learning in the Christian Middle Ages, when books were scarce. They were taken for granted, regarded as essential, and developed further by such giants of learning as St Thomas Aquinas, the angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church who has been called the patron saint of memory systems, and who made the unforgettable remark: ‘Man cannot understand without images.’

In England in the seventeenth century, the Puritan/Protestant ascendancy of the Civil War made a serious bid to eradicate imagery from all aspects of life - methodically destroving the religious imagery of churches and forbidding the imaginative play of drama. The same spirit also banished from the schools the old-established memory techniques that used ‘imagery’ and officially replaced them with ‘learning by rote’. The discarded methods, dimly associated with Paganism and Catholicism, were soon forgotten. If any attempt was made to reintroduce them, they were dismissed as ‘tricks’ and ‘cheating’.‘Learning by rote’ became the norm.

For memorizing any poem, including Ozymandias, I’ve found the approach JJ Hayes’ article “How To Memorize A Poem” to work well for me:

The above approach is what you might call a “spiral learning” approach. You go through the poem and memorize 1 line at a time, word-for-word, testing yourself after reading it out loud. Once you’ve done that, you go through and try the same thing, except memorizing 2 lines at a time. You keep doing this, each time going through with 1 more line, until you can go through the entire poem 6 lines at a time.

The best thing about this approach is the results. You learn the poem quickly, easily, and word-for-word, without the aid of locations or other mnemonics.

That approach worked so well for me, in fact, that I wrote a web app called Verbatim 2 to allow me to use it on anything that has a browser (including touch-sensitive mobile devices!):

Here’s a video tutorial/demo of Verbatim:

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As is so often the case, I find the best way lies somewhere in the middle. I’ve memorised a couple of (short) poems using a variation of this ‘spiral’ technique, but I use linked images for when I keep forgetting the next line. Works great!