[Milton-L] Controversial Techniques for Memorization

John Rochelle johnrochellejohn at yahoo.com
Sun Feb 22 13:15:59 EST 2004

On Memorizing Milton ... 
The instructor should assign lines for memorization which the instructor has already memorized and can "perform" blazingly.  Students should be asked not only to memorize the lines, but to be able to stand up and recite them in under, say, X seconds, that is, at top speed, as fast as the student can shape the words in her or his mouth.  For example, PL 1.1-26 can be uttered in about 35 seconds.  The instructor stands there with a stop-watch on a Monday morning and times students, noting the times: under 40 seconds, pass; over 40, try again tomorrow.  Write down the times in the roll book.  Boom, boom, boom, you can go through a whole class of thirty students in about fifteen minutes.  Students hear each other recite, and the recitations strengthen their own memorization efforts.  The instructor can praise especially agile recitations, and give an automatic A on the assignment to any student who "beats" the instructor's time.  These are all done from memory, of course.  
Two weeks later, students have another 25 lines or so to recite, inspired by the blazing performance of the instructor.  Meanwhile, one can teach on top of the memorized lines, unpacking the lines and words backwards and forwards.  The students have the lines buried deep, and at the ready.  For PL 1.1-26, for example, both commentators and to some extent the physical text itself are secondary and irrelevant; and the instructor can proceed to introduce Exodus, Homer, and Virgil to the students' attention, and place Milton's achievement within the context of his ambition.  
This "timed recitation" technique will invite controversy; but you know if you can perform it instantaneously without blinking, you've got it down pat.  That's what we're aiming for.  Comprehension comes later.  
Further, holding the instructor to memorizing lines, means that the instructor begins to comb the text for the "songs" of Milton, the stuff that sounds cool when uttered over and over again.  Of course, in PL, the speeches burst with melody, i.e., Raphael, Adam, Abdiel, etc.  These are more fun to memorize than the esoteria.  
For a whole course on English poetry, few poems rival any given sonnet of Hopkins for melodic blast.  In week one, have students say from memory "The Windhover" as fast as they can; in week two, they can slow it down, bodily describe the flight of the bird as they recite, and explain in their own words what the words and lines mean.  
After PL and Hopkins (and Keats and a few others), they will have internalized greatness; they will have become connoisseurs of the language's music.

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