In case it’s not already on your calendar, Dec. 9 is Milton’s 400th birthday. A couple of weeks ago I flew out to St. Olaf College, Minn. to take part in a marathon reading of “Paradise Lost” that some folks there staged in honor of the quatercentenary. I write about it in next week’s Chronicle.
If you ever have a chance to read Paradise Lost out loud, I urge you to take it. It’s more fun than you think. Among the joys? When you check back in with a classic like PL, you stumble on phrases that have taken on lives of their own outside the source material. Take this bit from Book II, which Philip Pullman mined for the trilogy “His Dark Materials”:
…Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage…
Early this year, the Oxford University Press blog ran some of Pullman’s thoughts on “Milton in 2008.” (Pullman also wrote an introduction for a recent Oxford edition of PL.)
The quartercentenary fun is just beginning. The University of Cambridge, Milton’s alma mater, has all kinds of festivities planned, and my sources at St. Olaf’s tell me that there are dozens of PL marathons taking place this fall. Find one near you–or stage your own and make yourself popular with all your friends.
Art Taylor says
I first read Paradise Lost as a high school student and then reread it as part of class in graduate school in my early 30s (much more productively the second time, I should add). I was working full-time when I was taking those grad school classes, and I have to admit, sometimes it was tough keeping focused with late night readings of Milton after a long, long day at my job, my eyes growing increasingly heavy as I tried to work through those long lines and dense passages. But (and here’s where I’m connecting with the above) one of the most productive things I did to stay focused, awake and aware was to begin reading it aloud — and you’re right: It’s a beautiful poem, beautifully cadenced, and the fullness of that beauty really comes out when you’re in the midst of declaiming it loudly (even to an empty living room).
I couldn’t agree more, Art. Out loud is the way to go with “Paradise Lost.” I’ve just posted my story about St. Olaf College’s recent Milton marathon. I hope it gets across what it’s like to sit through 12 hours of Milton–and why in heaven’s name anyone would want to.