[Milton-L] Half-Marathon

John Hale john.hale at stonebow.otago.ac.nz
Mon Apr 16 00:40:23 EDT 2007

The Milton Half-Marathon, performed
for and by the University of the Third Age (Dunedin) on Newly Recover’d
Ancient Greek Principles

After organizing ten all-day readings of the whole of Paradise Lost, the
“marathons,” I revisited one of the very few accounts of how ancient
Greece performed the Homeric epics; Plato’s dialogue of Ion with Socrates.
 By 400 BC, though performances of the entire poem by the Homeridae (guild
of the “sons of Homer”) continued, *portions* of the two epics also
received performance from professional “rhapsodes.”  These gave commentary
or interpretation as well, explaining how they understood Homer and
interpreted him, and also “embellishing” him, whatever that means; and all
of this to audiences of thousands
         I thought, accordingly, that after imitating the Homeridae ten
times, it would be worth trying the rhapsodes’ way of rendering epic. 
There would be the practical advantage of a less taxing day for the
performers and audience, which would make the new mode of representation
suitable for myself as I find myself lecturing in my twilight years to the
U3A.  Why not bring my regular performers back to read Milton again, but
this time also to praise or interpret his poem?
       So last Saturday we gathered for these purposes in our former
venue, the Hocken Library, sharp at 9 am.  I explained the idea and its
Greek origins.  Then we read Book One.  Then our first rhapsode, Bev
Sherry (who came over from Sydney to take part), got to her feet and
performed memory the passage leading to “Vallombrosa” (I. 283-304).  She
spoke about the expressive function of sound in the passage, matching the
materiality of sounds made and heard by oneself to Milton’s philosophic
matyerialism; and directed the students to her questionnaire.  It struck
me how much Milton is using long vowels as the passage goes on, and how
assonances do the work of rhyme, yet by their irregular placing avoid
making it (as rhyme would have) symmetrical and mechanical.
      Whereas we had read the first book unprepared round the ring, the
Great Consult had been casted.  For Book Three, too, that other Consult, I
deputed a Father and a Son to test Helen Gardner’s comment, that Milton
characterizes the Father as overwhelming power and will to enforce it; and
my own feeling that this enforcement is unpleasant to witness.  The
reading did not confirm any of this!   What came through instead, from
readers quiet not histrionic, was the dialoguing of justice with mercy.
       Bev spoke a little about Satan’s “address” to the sun (address
becoming soliloquy) then performed it.  I had been struck how close other
fallen angels come to acknowledging God’s justice as well as his power,
and how they slide away from repentance because they would lose face by
      I confess that the beauty of a half-marathon is that we don’t have
to read every word, and can keep to time, and can have discussions on the
way through.  So one is not only less tired at the end, but the students
for whose sake the event is happening can make it their own by talking
intermittently about it.  And very well they talked.
       After lunch, as one way to skip the middle four books, I read a
series of limerick summaries (for which visit
www.otago.ac.nz/English/research under “Milton”).  Then our musicians,
enlisted from the English Department, played a sequence of movements:
“Eve’s bad dream; Consolation; Angel visits; Conspiracy and War; Creation;
Trouble renewed.”  The first and last of these were played by Greg Waite
on the Uilleann pipes; chanter alone, like a voice, then with drone to
enhance dissonances, moved out of then back into.  What a lovely,
versatile instrument.  For some of the middle movements Brett Hirsch
played solos on various whistles or high pipes, then the two players
combined on more whistles.  They improvised, adapting their more usual
Irish repertoire to the story-line of the middle Books.  Like a dolt, I
did not think to record them; but it was magical.
        Our last “rhapsode,” Louise Petherbridge, spoke from the
perspective of a theatrical director about dramatizing the poem.  How, and
how not to.  She did not look forward to the rumoured movie version, but
suggested puppets — the large bunraku puppets.  She was answered by a
student who had seen one of the recent (English) dramatizations in London:
quick changes of costume, by five actors taking many roles, personal and
impersonal ones.
       I thought of opera versions, or radio: music to impact on emotions,
radio to disembody voice; both to engage imagination, more actively than
film’s paramountcy of sight can do.  In fact, it seems impertinent to turn
the relatively colour-free poem of a blind poet into literal colours, and
the sublime into the spectacular.  Louise also performed, as actress now,
another soliloquy of Satan.  She put far more expression into words like
“magnificent” and “O” (IX. 153-54) than I think any untrained voice or
mind would do.
        So then finally we lost Paradise, reading impromptu through IX and
X.  Last of all, we read the closing sentences together. It fell naturally
into steady iambic. Then we stayed on to talk about it all.  As I said,
everyone including me, had more energy and impetus to think about the
day’s deeds in part or as a whole, because of the half-ness.  The
experience resembled that of a very good long seminar.

John Hale

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