A truly unique way to experience Milton’s work
12 hours, 12 books. On November 24, faculty members and students performed a dramatic reading of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost in its entirety. The poetry binge was held in the Shu-Box Theatre in the Riddell Centre. The stage was austere: a row of chairs, a lectern, and a simple slideshow of illustrations. The reading continued from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Milton’s Paradise Lost was first published in England in 1667. He died only a few years later, in 1674. No doubt, the epic poem is the product of a mature and weathered mind, one that witnessed several calamitous events in English history: the English Civil Wars, the execution of Charles I, the republican rule of Oliver Cromwell, and later the restoration of the House of Stuart under Charles II. In fact, Milton was a civil servant during the years of the Commonwealth of England. Milton’s republican sympathies colour most of Paradise Lost.
The poem is over 10,000 lines of blank verse – metred but unrhymed. Since Milton had gone blind years prior, he dictated the entire poem to assistants and family. Paradise Lost deals with the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve, their struggle with Satan, and later their banishment from the Garden of Eden.
I spoke to Elizabeth Beke, a student in the Faculty of Education, about the event. Beke read the part of Belial. “I am studying Milton’s Paradise Lost at the U of R. So, when my professor, Troni Grande, let the class know she was doing a public reading for the poem, I knew I wanted to participate,” she said. “While Milton’s Paradise Lost is excellent to read on your own, witnessing how others interpret the voice, attitude, and rhythm of how the characters act and speak brings the poem to life.”
It became clear that Beke had a lot of interest and enthusiasm about the poem. I asked her what kind of lessons readers and listeners can take from Paradise Lost. She told me, “Paradise Lost is an incredible poem that reveals Milton’s prophetic insights on theological and philosophical questions concerning free will and predestination. The poem also gives insight into the reasoning of characters – God, Satan, Adam, Eve, Angels, and so forth, which helps us understand what lies behind human desires. The poem touches on the struggle to understand how thoughts originate.”
The subject matter, obviously, is rather high stakes. But it’s not only a heady moral about the fall of humanity. Paradise Lost is also a joy to read and hear. If one deals with English literature at all, inevitably they hear of Milton’s poem. I attended the reading of Book V. Having never read a line of Milton before, I was struck by its potent voice and the innovative wordsmithing. I took note of a few choice lines: “Well hast thou taught the way that might direct / Our knowledge, and the scale of Nature set / From center to circumference, whereon / In contemplation of created things / By steps we may ascend to God.” There’s reason, I discovered, that it’s considered one of the greatest works of the English language; it’s actually good.
Like all great works of art, it produces brilliant conversation. Beke shared some more of her insights with me: “The poem highlights how man is made out of dust, which shows how weak we are. We are not made out of a heavenly substance that is formidable, and we do not possess the foreknowledge of God to know the outcome of every decision we make. Because of our human nature, we are full of curiosity and wonder. After reading Paradise Lost, I am no longer surprised by why Adam and Eve were so easily tempted to disobey.” Yes, Milton described the serpent as the “subtlest beast of all the field.”
“Therefore,” Beke concluded, “Reading the poem helps one to embrace their humanity and recognize the need for grace, hope, love, and forgiveness.”
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitary way.