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Epic Feat: Retiree Memorizes Nearly All of Homer’s ‘Iliad’

April 12, 1994

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) _ Other retirees are content exercising their brains on cards or mah-jongg. Stephen Powelson decided to memorize Homer’s ″Iliad.″

All 600 pages, two volumes, 15,693 lines, more than 200,000 syllables - in the ancient Greek.

And 16 years later, after about 5,800 hours of memorizing, he knows 14,800 lines of verse by heart.

How did he do it?

″Will, discipline and a touch of madness,″ he said.

On Monday, Powelson regaled a dozen classics professors and students with about 650 lines in an hour of reciting at the University of Massachusetts. One long section was assigned to him the night before to prove he wasn’t cheating by simply memorizing a few selections to recite.

Powelson, 76, who lives in Paris, was in the midst of a national tour to show off his homeric memory and promote the classics in a society more familiar with Homer Simpson, Jimmy the Greek and Classic Coke.

″Every person has a secret desire to achieve immortality. My way is to absorb into myself something that is immortal,″ said he.

His campus host, classics Professor Edward Phinney, said Powelson’s near- completed epic feat lends credence to the theory that the ″Iliad″ was the work of a single poet who knew the entire unwritten work by heart. Some scholars believe the poem was actually fashioned by a group of artists in the same school.

″It means that the entire poem can be grasped by one mind. Students think it’s endless,″ Phinney said.

Powelson, an auditing executive, was forced into retirement at 60 when his employer closed its Paris office, where he was based. As a pastime and mental stimulant, he opened Homer’s grand tale of the Trojan War and the terrible consequences of Achilles’ wrath.

Powelson had not read it since his prep school days at Phillips Academy in Andover.

He set about memorizing the entire poem, which was crafted around 800 B.C. and was conveyed in oral form alone, accompanied by the plucking of lyres.

Working from Harvard University Press’ Loeb Library edition, he would repeat lines with his eyes closed. Sometimes he would record his voice and listen to it. He would resort to memory tricks, such as associating items with pieces of furniture in his home.

As he recited on Monday, he periodically closed his eyes and clenched a fist, jerking it up and down to the meter of the dactylic hexameter. Occasionally, he would falter, repeat a few words and press on. Only a few times did he need a cue from the audience.

Speaking afterward, he claimed to have only an ordinary memory. He said it had improved with practice.

His wife said she wished it extended to other parts of his life.

″He can’t find his glasses. He can’t find his keys,″ Esther Williams Powelson blurted.

Did he gain deep insights into ancient Greek thought by memorizing the text?

There was a hushed pause.

″Not really,″ he said. ″I wish I had.″

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