How to Remember Poems and Books of the Bible With the 'Cumulative Method'

You can memorize an entire epic poem or book of the Bible – one verse at a time.

Ever wanted to memorize an epic poem or a book of the Bible? You can, and it’s much simpler than you think.

I’ve been working on this project for years. I’ve tried various combinations of mnemonics, the loci method, and spaced repetition.

But after all my experimentation, the best method may be the one you’re about to learn: the cumulative method.

In today’s Saturday selection, author William Walker Atkinson explains how to learn a long text – one verse a day. Why so little? Because you need to train your mind to focus on a text and learn it perfectly.

If you’re like me, part of your mind thinks it’s impossible to learn a text perfectly. That’s why you should take it slow. One verse a day, perfectly. You’re forming a new habit.

You also need to attach each new verse to what you’ve already learned. Every day, you repeat all the verses you’ve said.

After a month of this training, you can learn two new verses a day. The next month, three.

But I’ll let Atkinson explain.

Begin With One Verse A Day

We suggest that the student who wishes to acquire a good memory for words, sentences, etc., begin at once, selecting some favorite poem for the purpose of the demonstration. Then let him memorize one verse of not over four to six lines to begin with.

Learn That One Verse Perfectly

Let him learn this verse perfectly, line by line, until he is able to repeat it without a mistake. Let him be sure to be “letter perfect” in that verse – so perfect that he will “see” even the capital letters and the punctuation marks when he recites it. Then let him stop for the day.

The next day let him repeat the verse learned the day before, and then let him memorize a second verse in the same way, and just as perfectly.

Review Your Verses Together

Then let him review the first and second verses together. This addition of the second verse to the first serves to weld the two together by association, and each review of them together serves to add a little bit to the weld, until they become joined in the mind as are “A, B, C.”

The third day let him learn a third verse, in the same way and then review the three.

Continue this for say a month, adding a new verse each day and adding it to the verses preceding it. But constantly review them from beginning to end. He cannot review them too often. He will be able to have them flow along like the letters of the alphabet, from “A” to “Z” if he reviews properly and often enough.

Month 2: Learn Two New Verses a Day

Then, if he can spare the time, let him begin the second month by learning two verses each day, and adding to those that precede them, with constant and faithful reviews.

He will find that he can memorize two verses, in the second month, as easily as he did the on a verse in the first month. His memory has been trained to this extent.

Add Another Verse Each Month

And so, he may proceed from month to month, adding an extra verse to his daily task, until he is unable to spare the time for all the work, or until he feels satisfied with what he has accomplished.

Let him use moderation and not try to become a phenomenon. Let him avoid overstraining.

Renew What You Know Before Learning the New

After he has memorized the entire poem, let him start with a new one, but not forget to revive the old one at frequent intervals.

If he finds it impossible to add the necessary number of new verses, by reason of other occupation, etc., let him not fail to keep up his review work. The exercise and review is more important than the mere addition of so many new verses.

Let him vary the verses, or poems with prose selections. He will find the verses of the Bible very well adapted for such exercise, as they lend themselves easily to registration in the memory. Shakespeare may be used to advantage in this work….

Little By Little, Achieve the Amazing

It would seem almost impossible that one would ever be able to memorize and recite [a long selection] … from beginning to end, letter perfect. But on the principle of the continual dripping of water wearing away the stone; or the snowball increasing at each roll; this practice of a little being associated to what he already has will soon allow him to accumulate a wonderfully large store of memorized verses, poems, recitations, etc….

After he has acquired quite a large assortment of memorized selections, he will find it impossible to review them all at one time. But he should be sure to review them all at intervals, no matter how many days may elapse between each review….

Attention, Association, Repetition, and Interest

[T]he three principles of attention, association and repetition are employed in the natural method herein recommended. Attention must be given in order to memorize each verse in the first place; association is employed in the relationship created between the old verses and the new ones; and repetition is employed by the frequent reviewing, which serves to deepen the memory impression each time the poem is repeated.

Moreover, the principle of interest is invoked, in the gradual progress made, and the accomplishment of what at first seemed to be an impossible task – the game element is thus supplied, which serves as an incentive.

These combined principles render this method an ideal one, and it is not to be wondered that the race has so recognized it from the earliest times.

(A selection from: Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It
William Walker Atkinson, 1912
Headers, paragraph breaks, and some emphasis added.
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More to Come!

I’ve tried this cumulative method myself. My memories are much cleaner and sturdier than I ever achieved with mnemonics. This simple method yields amazing results.

Today, we can improve this method even further, using spaced repetition intelligently to make our reviews. And there’s much more to say about speaking and listening to texts, and using your imagination. More to come!