Paradise found: Milton's 400th-anniversary reading

18 November 2008

John Milton, the blind author of Paradise Lost.
John Milton, the blind author of Paradise Lost.

Samuel Johnson, the English writer and critic, said "Paradise Lost  is a book that, once put down, is very hard to pick up again."

But there's a very good reason why so many people find John Milton's epic poem such a hard slog says Barry Spurr, Associate Professor in English literature. It's because Milton didn't actually write it.

"Milton was blind, you know. He recited it," he explains. "It's very much an oral and aural work. A work to be spoken and a work to be heard."

An opportunity to hear Paradise Lost "come alive" at a free public reading in honour of the 400th anniversary of Milton's birth is not to be missed, he insists.

At the reading, Professor Spurr will play the role of God. "I feel I was called to this part," he says. "Born to play it - I knew my day would come!"

The program will focus particularly on the temptation of Eve by Satan. "That's the crucial turning point in the poem, the fall of man," said event organiser Dr Beverley Sherry. Satan takes the form of a snake in his seduction of Eve, an episode recorded in a graphically evocative illustration by William Blake.

"Blake's illustrations for Paradise Lost are by far the most imaginary, eccentric and visionary," said Dr Sherry. "That one is so sexual!  Milton described Satan's approach to Eve not as slithering along the ground, but as a magnificent, huge, erect snake propelling itself towards her."

Dr Sherry was asked to given an illustrated talk on Milton by Dr Helen Hewson, an honorary associate in English and a parishioner of the church. But, she explained, "I said he would be better celebrated and honoured by readings from his works."

She added: "And incidentally, Dr Johnson had wax in his ears!"

First published in 1667, Paradise Lost still resonates today. Consider this:

To reign is worth ambition, though in hell: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

"Oh yes, that's Satan," says Professor Spurr. "This is one of the great debates about the poem. Who is the hero? Some people think Satan is. What they mean is that Satan is in many ways the most interesting character. But that doesn't make him the hero. Often the villain is the most interesting.

"In many ways it's a poem that critiques muscularity and physical prowess," explains Professor Spurr. "Milton finds moral bravery and courage a much higher good than mere physical attributes. That came from his own situation. Being blind made him seriously physically inhibited."

Milton's 400th anniversary is being celebrated all around the world and, says Professor Spurr, there was no way the University was going to let such a momentous occasion pass by. "The language is resonant, dramatic, and very sonorous, so it's a delight to read. And much more importantly it tells the story of the human race - why we are the way we are - and therefore it's perennially and perpetually interesting and important."

What: A public reading of Milton's Paradise Lost by Associate Professor Barry Spurr as God, Anthony Miller as Satan, Cathy Sherry as Eve, Owen Chambers as Adam and narrators Bill Walker and Anthony Miller.

When: 6.30 to 8pm, Thursday, 27 November. Refreshments from 5.45pm.

Where: Christ Church, St Laurence (George Street near Railway Square)
Cost: Free

Contact: Media Office

Phone: 02 9036 5404