KR BlogReading

Reading Milton

It was during a session of my Major Figures: Milton course this spring that I mentioned the tradition of reading Milton’s Paradise Lost aloud. At least, I’ve heard of it happening several times, including once while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, in a course taught by Professor Douglas Trevor. I was not part of that event, though I found myself quite interested in accounts of the reading. So I dropped the idea into my class discussion, half thinkng–perhaps one-fourth thinking–that maybe some of my students would be interested in such an undertaking, though to be honest I was not relishing the idea of spending this extra time in the midst of an already exhausting semester.

It was Allie Kerr, the kind of student who makes things happen, who put the event together. I rather suspected that she would be the one to do this, and I pledged that were she to organize the reading, I would be there for the whole thing. So on three successive evenings, from six to ten o’clock, we met in the Manor House on the Lewis & Clark College campus to read Paradise Lost out loud. It took about eleven-and-a-half hours. Allie was there for pretty much the whole time, as was Charles Lehmer, another of the Miltonists from the spring semester. People were free to come and go as they pleased. At any given moment, we had perhaps between five and ten people in the room, although there was an hour or so when Charles Lehmer and I kept the reading up and running on our own, taking about a hundred lines at a time, back and forth. Some other members of the English Department, Mary Szybist and John Callahan, made appearances and contributed their reading voices to the enterprise. Apples were served.

I recall professor Trevor mentioning that he noticed things about the poem in the midst of his marathon reading (his class conducted the reading all in a day) that he had not noticed before. There were some things that I noticed that had not come to my attention before, such as the parallel between Uriel’s innocence and that of Eve. As the epic voice explains, innocent creatures cannot recognize hypocrisy, so even such an angel as Uriel cannot see that the angel before him is Satan, in the guise of an unfallen spirit, asking directions to the new creation that is Eden. I take it that we are to think something similar of Eve, whose guilt is somewhat mitigated because she cannot recognize Satan’s guile in the guise of the serpent. This is the sort of thing that I might have noticed before–in however many previous readings (I’ve lost track by now) of the poem that I’ve undertaken–but did not for whatever reason, inherent dimness or inattention.

But what perhaps came most pointedly into my awareness as a result of this reading aloud is the difficulty of the poem’s syntax, difficult in a way that I have not yet had the chance to analyze, but is some sense different–it seems to me–from any other Renaissance text that I know. (Even though Paradise Lost was first published in 1667, seven years into the Restoration and what is known in literary studies in English as the Long Eighteenth Century, it remains the property of those of us specializing in the English Renaissance.) More than in reading poems by Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne–more even than in reading other poems by Milton–I find that in reading Paradise Lost, I have to keep casting my eyes and my mind ahead to track the difficult syntax of those long and winding sentences. The poem calls forth an especially rigorous dynamism of reading.

I have long thought that much of the poem’s strength arises from its protrayal of the dynamisms of the human intellect, never fully at rest within a given framework, but rather constantly finding itself in a new framework of understanding which it must learn to negotiate. It may be for this reason of the poem’s sense of human dynamism that among the more compelling and even sublime lines are those that close the poem, describing in vivid and expentant terms Adam and Eve’s exit from Eden and movement into the ambiguous and shifting world beyond. Perhaps here is subject matter for further study, which I shall have to undertake as time and energy, along with what meager dynamism of mind I can muster, allow.