Tackling 'Paradise Lost' out loud at annual marathon reading

By Katie Steen, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 4, 2011

While most University students were sleeping off their Friday night festivities, a particularly brave group arrived at Angell Hall at 8 a.m. Saturday morning to read John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” — yes, the entire thing — in one sitting.

This was the second year the University’s English department held a reading of “Paradise Lost.” Headed by English Profs. Linda Gregerson and Doug Trevor, the reading was conducted in a round robin fashion, as participants took turns reading the poem in a “circle.” In reality, the readers situated themselves in an amorphous blob shape, but all the benefits of a round robin reading were certainly still present. Gregerson described the first “Paradise Lost” reading as having a diverse group of people, and stressed that anyone and everyone was welcome to come read for this round as well.

“It’s wonderful to hear a variety of voices, not where we’re sort of center-staging anybody,” Gregerson said. “We don’t assign roles; people don’t come and read Satan for the day.”

Voices of all sorts were heard at this year’s reading, including a few particularly appropriate English accents. The readers’ confidence levels fluctuated — some people acted is if they read the entire “Paradise Lost” every Saturday morning. When asked the significance of reading “Paradise Lost” aloud, Trevor noted that Milton was blind when he wrote the poem.

“Think in terms of the composition of the poem,” Trevor said. “In the early morning, one or two of (Milton’s) former students would come by his house and he’d recite 30 or 50 lines or so each morning and they would read back those lines that he had composed the day before. It was a poem that was largely composed orally.”

Gregerson also shared a few benefits of oral reading; she said that since “Paradise Lost” is filled with speeches, it’s wonderful to give a voice to the characters. She also explained that a lot of her students read poetry out loud in order to understand it best.

“I think all poetry should be read out loud,” Gregerson said. “In an ideal world, we’d meet every Saturday and read poetry.”

Of course, reading for 10 hours every weekend would become a bit taxing. Prior to the reading, Trevor had offered the participants some advice.

“Drink lots of water,” he said.

The department provided food and beverages to maintain participants’ energy — or at least to prevent accidental nodding off during the marathon. Provisions included apples for the “fall of man” scene when Adam and Eve are tempted to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree.

LSA seniors Galina Stefadu and Brice Harris, who stayed for the entire reading, described the apples as their favorite part of the reading experience.

“It was super loud — while somebody was reading, you would continually hear (chomp),” Harris explained, biting into an imaginary apple to demonstrate.

The students admitted it was difficult to stay for the entire reading, particularly toward the end of the poem when it began to seem “epilogue-ish,” as Stefadu described it. While a substantial number of people stayed the entire time, the size of the group varied throughout the day.

“It’s funny because when it was the ‘fall of man,’ the room was full,” Stefadu said. “People seemed to know when to come to the interesting parts and I don’t know how that happened.”

Round robin attendees varied greatly, including one woman who brought her elementary-age son (who preferred to silently munch on a bagel and observe). Some people stayed for 20 minutes while others stood and stretched against the wall, complaining of body aches after the reading was complete.

The poem’s finish was met with clapping in a seemingly mixed reaction of enjoyment of the experience and sheer relief it was over. In the end, however, the unanimous response was one of satisfaction.

“It’s very rare that you get to hear such a thing in one sweep,” Gregerson said. “We fully intend to do it annually … it’s a wonderful tradition that builds very nicely.”