Milton Marathon

The Chronicle of Higher Education chronicles Professor Richard DuRocher’s experiment in a Milton Marathon: a “straight-through, out-loud reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost — all 12 books of it, from Satan’s fall to Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden.” From the article:

Here are some of the things you learn when you participate in a Milton marathon:

  1. Milton is not as boring as you think. Paradise Lost has something for everyone: Hot but innocent sex! (You thought Adam and Eve spent all their time in Eden gardening?) Descriptions of hellfire that would make The Lord of the Rings‘ archfiend, Sauron, weep with envy! Epic battles, with angels hurling mountains at their demonic foes! This is edge-of-your-seat material. “It’s a really cool story, which I wasn’t expecting,” said Anna Coffey, a sophomore who took part in the reading to get a jump on her homework for a “Great Conversations” core-curriculum course.
  2. Milton is not that hard to read out loud. As Mr. DuRocher pointed out in a set of “Guidelines for Reciting” he handed out before the marathon, “Paradise Lost is written in modern English.” Compared with Beowulf, Paradise Lost is a walk in the park.
  3. Milton is really hard to read out loud. Very few people get words like “puissance” right on the first try. Milton loved a runaway sentence and just about any now-obscure classical or geographical reference he could get his hands on, many of them polysyllabic nightmares. Partway through Book VI, Mr. DuRocher offered advice to the tongue-tied. “Whenever you encounter a word you don’t know, that’s a word to pronounce with special certainty,” he said. “It’s probably best to mispronounce demonic names anyway.”
  4. It’s worth it. “It’s really a good poem,” said Mr. Goodroad. “It’s a lot better to hear it than to read it.”

This venture is not as original as it may sound. Many years ago (in 1990, to be precise), the members of UBC professor Lee Johnson’s Honours Milton seminar decided the best way to prepare for their final exam was to do the same thing. We started at 9:00 a.m. and read for the whole day. It was a tremendous experience, and one that got better as the day (and the poem) went along. I think those who got to read Satan’s speeches had the most fun. I would second all four points above, particularly that it is a better poem to hear (or to proclaim), not just to read. And I would add that the whole experience goes better when fuelled by mimosas… Ah, to be a keen undergraduate again.

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