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English Class Will Define "Paradise" As Twelve-Hour Reading of Milton's Epic

March 22, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Title Page Paradise Lost
The title page of a first edition of Milton's Paradise Lost, part of the college library's rare book collection.

In keeping with the primary theme of this epic work, Davidson College's English 355 class will serve plenty of apples to audience members during its all-day reading of John Milton's Paradise Lost on Saturday, March 31.

The crunching should reach a crescendo during hour nine, when a reader reaches Book 9, Line 780, a passage that recalls Eve's fateful decision to eat the forbidden fruit: "Her rash hand in evil hour/ Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate. / Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat / Sighing through all her works, gave sighs of woe, / That all was lost."

The public is invited to attend this reading of Milton's 17th-century epic, which chronicles the revolt of a powerful and sympathetic Satan against God, and Satan's actions against Adam and Eve that lead to humanity's fall. It begins at 9 a.m. in the Carolina Inn on Main Street in Davidson, and is expected to last 12 hours.

Ingram with students
Milton scholars (l-r) Robert McSweeny '03, Emily Metzloff '03, associate professor Randy Ingram and Brandt McMillan '01 admire Milton's poetry.

Though admission is free, student participants and listeners are invited to bring along used children's and young adult books for the Ada Jenkins Community Center's after-school program, or contribute donations to buy books.

Associate Professor Randy Ingram, who teaches the twenty-two students enrolled in the Milton seminar, explained that both the reading and the book drive have special meaning in the context of Milton. Milton was a controversial, activist writer, born in 1608, who went blind in middle age, in part, because he read almost every book published in every language to that point in history. Firmly opposed to censorship, he believed virtue and vice were opposite sides of the same coin, and advocated people to read all manner of literature in order to develop principled stances on important issues.

The public reading reflects the fact that Milton, who considered himself a prophet, did not actually write Paradise Lost. Instead, he recited it to friends, family members, and scribes in what he called "unpremeditated verse." Senior student Brandt McMillan explained that Milton's assistants read to him from the Old Testament in Hebrew during the day, and Milton reflected on those readings as he slept. "When he woke up in the morning he would sit up and say, 'I want to be milked,' and then dictate the verses to his scribes," said McMillan. "The whole thing sort of flowed out of his head and out of his mouth."

Ingram admitted that Paradise Lost is not easy to read because of its odd syntax, difficult vocabulary, and complex, noble style. However, he said it is an important, provoking work. "It's a poem that asks all the big questions," he said. "Hearing it can be a reflective, exciting time for the listener."

To help casual listeners comprehend the work, students are writing short summaries of each chapter, and will make them available at the reading.

Book three

Ingram said his students are spending six weeks on the twelve books of Paradise Lost, but much of their discussion is directed by the footnotes that occupy about half of each page in their textbook. The public reading will reinforce the oral nature of the original work, said first year student Jonathan Wu. "Reading it end-to-end without interruption should help us see it as a whole and focus more on the narrative, rather than dealing with the footnotes," said Wu.

Ingram specializes in the study of 17th-century books, and explained that Milton's decisions about publication of Paradise Lost in 1667 reflects interesting aspects of his character. Since Milton firmly believed he was called to serve as a divine prophet in the religious reformation of England, one might assume that his epic would be printed in florid and grandiose style.

However, Milton abhorred anything that he considered idolatry, even religious symbols such as crucifixes or paintings of Christ. So he directed that the book be published simply, with no illustrations or even frontispiece. "Perhaps because of his blindness, he wanted people to concentrate on the words without being distracted by image or presentation," Ingram explained. "It's a physically unassuming book, but the words make it one of the most audacious books in history."

For more information on the reading, call Ingram at 894-2577.

Milton students
(l-r) Robert McSweeny, Emily Metzloff and Brandt McMillan display Little library's copy of the first edition of Paradise Lost.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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