Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter III

Celebrated Cases of Memory

In order that the student may appreciate the marvelous extent of development possible to the memory, we have thought it advisable to mention a number of celebrated cases, past and present. In so doing we have no desire to hold up these cases as worthy of imitation, for they are exceptional and not necessary in every-day life. We mention them merely to show to what wonderful extent development along these lines is possible.

In India, in the past, the sacred books were committed to memory, and handed down from teacher to student, for ages. And even to-day it is no uncommon thing for the student to be able to repeat, word for word, some voluminous religious work equal in extent to the New Testament. Max Muller states that the entire text and glossary of Panini’s Sanscrit grammar, equal in extent to the entire Bible, were handed down orally for several centuries before being committed to writing. There are Brahmins to-day who have committed to memory, and who can repeat at will, the entire collection of religious poems known as the _Mahabarata_, consisting of over 300,000 _slokas_ or verses. Leland states that, “the Slavonian minstrels of the present day have by heart with remarkable accuracy immensely long epic poems. I have found the same among Algonquin Indians whose sagas or mythic legends are interminable, and yet are committed word by word accurately. I have heard in England of a lady ninety years of age whose memory was miraculous, and of which extraordinary instances are narrated by her friends. She attributed it to the fact that when young she had been made to learn a verse from the Bible every day, and then constantly review it. As her memory improved, she learned more, the result being that in the end she could repeat from memory any verse or chapter called for in the whole Scripture.”

It is related that Mithridates, the ancient warrior-king, knew the name of every soldier in his great army, and conversed fluently in twenty-two dialects. Pliny relates that Charmides could repeat the contents of every book in his large library. Hortensius, the Roman orator, had a remarkable memory which enabled him to retain and recollect the exact words of his opponent’s argument, without making a single notation. On a wager, he attended a great auction sale which lasted over an entire day, and then called off in their proper order every object sold, the name of its purchaser, and the price thereof. Seneca is said to have acquired the ability to memorize several thousand proper names, and to repeat them in the order in which they had been given him, and also to reverse the order and call off the list backward. He also accomplished the feat of listening to several hundred persons, each of whom gave him a verse; memorizing the same as they proceeded; and then repeating them word for word in the exact order of their delivery–and then reversing the process, with complete success. Eusebius stated that only the memory of Esdras saved the Hebrew Scriptures to the world, for when the Chaldeans destroyed the manuscripts Esdras was able to repeat them, word by word to the scribes, who then reproduced them. The Mohammedan scholars are able to repeat the entire text of the Koran, letter perfect. Scaliger committed the entire text of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in three weeks. Ben Jonson is said to have been able to repeat all of his own works from memory, with the greatest ease.

Bulwer could repeat the Odes of Horace from memory. Pascal could repeat the entire Bible, from beginning to end, as well as being able to recall any given paragraph, verse, line, or chapter. Landor is said to have read a book but once, when he would dispose of it, having impressed it upon his memory, to be recalled years after, if necessary. Byron could recite all of his own poems. Buffon could repeat his works from beginning to end. Bryant possessed the same ability to repeat his own works. Bishop Saunderson could repeat the greater part of Juvenal and Perseus, all of Tully, and all of Horace. Fedosova, a Russian peasant, could repeat over 25,000 poems, folk-songs, legends, fairy-tales, war stories, etc., when she was over seventy years of age. The celebrated “Blind Alick,” an aged Scottish beggar, could repeat any verse in the Bible called for, as well as the entire text of all the chapters and books. The newspapers, a few years ago, contained the accounts of a man named Clark who lived in New York City. He is said to have been able to give the exact presidential vote in each State of the Union since the first election. He could give the population in every town of any size in the world either present or in the past providing there was a record of the same. He could quote from Shakespeare for hours at a time beginning at any given point in any play. He could recite the entire text of the Iliad in the original Greek.

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