« Parr and Jenkins | ‘Lost Articles’ | “A Heavy Heart” »

Singular Memories

THE present is an article that, perhaps, may be thought by many readers apocryphal.

When Muretus was at Rome, (says Scaliger)—by way of Parenthesis, I must observe, the relator and the auditor were the two first scholars in Europe—there came, one day, to the palace of the French ambassador, a Florentine of a very ill-favoured countenance, and whose eyes were continually declined on the ground. It was said, that he possessed, in a wonderful degree, an Artificial Memory. To give a proof of his powers, he begged the company, who were numerous, to seat themselves regularly, that he might not be disturbed; and that they would order to be written down to the number of fifty thousand words: assuring them, that if they pronounced them distinctly, and if afterwards they were read slowly, he would repeat every word without hesitation. This was done. They would only have troubled him with a few; but he insisted that they should proceed. The secretary of the ambassador was employed full two hours in writing the most singular words the company could select; and among them was a Cardinal Peleve, who gave him Polysyllables in the best or longest manner of our late Lexicographer. The Florentine, to the astonishment of the audience, recited them without the smallest omission; and this he did, beginning sometimes at the end, and sometimes in the middle. He said, that his Artificial Memory had caused him totally to lose his natural one.

Jedediah Buxton’s singular memory appears to have been of a different cast: he could only count words, &c. for when he went to the play, he is said to have enumerated the words of Garrick, and the steps of the dancers; but he had not, like this man, any one who could be capable of contradicting him.

The memory of the great Daguesseau, Chancellor of France, was extremely singular. Such were his retentive powers; according to M. Thomas, that it was sufficient for him to have read once attentively any poem, of tolerable length, to recite it correctly. It was in this he possessed most of the Greek poetry. At the age of eighty, a man of letters having quoted an epigram of Martial incorrectly, he immediately recited the whole; confessing that he had not read this author since the age of twelve years. Sometimes he even retained what had been only read to him. Boileau one day recited a Satire he had just composed. Daguesseau told him, coldly, that he knew the piece perfectly well; and to convince him of it, repeated it entire. The satirist, as may be supposed, was furiously agitated; but finished, however, in admiring the felicity of his memory.

A strange anecdote is recorded of Fuller, the author of “The Worthies of England:” To prove the singular tenaciousness of his memory, “he undertook once, in passing to and fro from Temple Bar to the farthest part of Cheapside; to tell, at his return, every sign as it stood in order on both sides of the way, repeating them either backwards or forwards; and he did it exactly.” It is also noticed of him, that “he could repeat five hundred strange words after twice hearing; and could make use of a sermon verbatim, if he once heard it.”

Magliabechi had as singular a memory. To put it to a proof, a gentleman lent him a MS. Some time after it was returned, he came to him, with a melancholy face, to inform him that it was lost. Magliabechi was not so much concerned; for he repeated, exactly every word of the MS, which, it is said, he had perfectly retained. It is also said, that when he quoted any author in conversation, he also mentioned the volume and the page.

Calvin had a very faithful memory. It is said that he never forgot any thing he wished to retain. And whenever he was interrupted in his studies, he could always resume the thread of his work without being told where he had left it unfinished.

Thomas Dempster, a learned Scotchman of the seventeenth century, declared he never knew what it was to forget. It is probable he did not speak truth: if he did, he must have been the eighth wonder of the world; for he read fourteen hours every day. But, with all his memory, he could not remember to write with elegance, so that he was never a favourite.

Egnatius, a polished Italian, was also distinguished for a fine memory. One day, when he was haranguing his audience, he had nearly finished, when the Pope’s Nuncio entered. He recommenced his discourse, and repeated it exactly; only he heightened the diction and displayed more eloquence than the first time. The Venetian senators, as well as literary men, used to consult him; and he always answered their interrogatories without having recourse to his books.

Ubbo Emmius, professor at Groninguen, had a prodigious memory; difficult to be credited. It is related of him, that he could readily answer any questions in history without mistaking the minutest circumstances of time, place, or persons. He even recollected the figure, situation, and magnitude of towns and fortresses; the position of the rivers and highways; the heights of the mountains, &c.

This little sketch will be sufficient; it could, however, be augmented. Bayle observes, that Memory is the first thing that dies in men of letters.

The following curious observations on memory I find in the Bibliotheque Raisonnée, an Amsterdam Literary journal, which was published by the Wetsteins. Vol. 49, p. 90.

Memory does not differ from Imagination. Without Memory we can imagine nothing., and without Imagination we cannot recollect, I do not know if the ancients were not acquainted with the mechanial Art of Memory, They have at least emphatically expressed it, by the word Recordatio, as if one should say, to memorise; that is, to touch those cords which have excited such and such ideas. When I see an orator decline his head, knit his brows, rub his temples, I represent his situation by that of a poor traveller, who is lost in a town, knocking at every door till he has found him whom he fought.
“What is called a great Memory, is only a great facility to move certain fibres of the brain. The old man only feels a want of Memory, because he cannot put them in action.
“I knew one of ninety, who forgot from day to day all that he saw, all that he heard, but who said, he remembered with ease the fields and the woods where he had kept sheep in his youth. The fibres we are accustomed to move from our infancy have a more durable mobility: exercise nourishes and strengthens them.”

These are good arguments to shew the necessity of our youths daily exercising this mental faculty. And perhaps those instances which I have collected of so many great men possessing it in almost an incredible degree, arose from their having practised it regularly by their continued studies.

Editor’s Notes

This article, and the twenty-three pieces that follow, all formed part of the Miscellanea section of the third edition of the first volume of the Curiosities.