Paradise Lost abridged


To the spikey Christ Church St Laurence early this evening for a Milton-quatercentennial reading of excerpts from Paradise Lost devised by Beverley Sherry.

This started at 6.30 and went until 8.00. Refreshments were advertised as on offer beforehand from 5.45. By the time I arrived everyone had taken their place in the church – which was comfortably fullish. After bagging a seat, I headed out to the hall to see if there was anything on offer. Judging from the few remaining Arnotts assorted I hadn’t missed much. As refreshment, it brought to mind Milton’s celestial light, which Milton calls upon at the beginning of Book III to “shine inward…that I may see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight.”

Apart from the openings of books I and III, Dr Sherry’s selection eschewed the poetical apparatus and concentrated on the core of the plot: “man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree.” As a result, the more cosmographical sections took a back seat to Book IX.

The excerpts selected were (approximately – there were some internal excisions):

  1. Book I: 1- 124 (the famous opening);
  2. II: 871-920 (Satan at the gates of hell ponders chaos);
  3. III: 1-134 (Milton’s famous and poignant hymn to light; meanwhile in Heaven, God pronounces a disclaimer that wouldn’t withstand a product liability suit);
  4. IV: 246-275 (Paradise through Satan’s eyes), 411-492 (Adam and Eve converse – I think there was some further abridgement here);
  5. V: 224-245 (God instructs Raphael to warn Adam and Eve against Satan);
  6. IX: 643-692, 703-709, 733-749, 763-804, 816-916 (the central drama: temptation and fall);
  7. X: 867-895, 914-936, 947-961 (post-fall recriminations, merging into mutual comfort);
  8. XI: 251-260[ish] (Archangel Michael breaks the news to Adam);
  9. XII: 537 to end (Michael brings his preview of world history to Adam to a close and gives him some advice for the future; they descend from the top of speculation and join Eve, who’s been given some comfort in a dream; they are expelled from paradise and face the future together).

NSW Premier Nathan Rees, who has said that Paradise Lost is his favourite book, read the celebrated opening invocation of the muse (I: 1 -33). Perhaps he was wary after his “being in traffic is like being in love” moment, because he wasn’t the most demonstrative of readers: the famous long-postponed initial principal verb, “Sing,” was almost missed, and enjambement is clearly not his thing. It was good of him to come. Accompanied by a minder or two or possibly a driver, he left at about line 40.

The non-celebrity readers did better than Mr Rees, some better than others.

Milton himself besides, the evening belonged to Dr Sherry. She joined the dots with her own synopsis of the poem, laced liberally with verbatim quotes and smaller fragments of Miltonic phrases, delivered without notes or prompts of any kind. She is clearly an enthusiast.

Dr Sherry allowed herself the closing lines. I do love Miltonic endings. I’m still trying to work out what it is about them, but whatever it is, I feel this also, for example, in the endings to his Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity or Lycidas. The ending of Paradise Lost is less well known than the opening, probably because fewer readers get there, but if you have reached it even with an abridged passage through the poem as we had, it is at least as good, if not (as it should be) better.

The archangel Michael has taken Adam and Eve in either hand to the eastern gate of paradise (this is on a hill), over which a flaming sword of God (possibly a comet) hovers (I’m struggling here, bear with me) at the front of a host of cherubim. That is the moment illustrated by Blake in the picture at the top of the post and used also in the program which was distributed. Then, shoved (courteously but firmly) out the gate, heading down to the plain below, they are on their own.

They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Maybe I’ll go back now and [re]read more of the poem.

One Response to “Paradise Lost abridged”

  1. Don’t be ridiculous, Nicholas « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] of a catchphrase can be. No wonder, as Milton said, fame is the spur! Just by way of example, as Dr Sherry said on Thursday, the phrase “all hell broke loose” is one of his, though in the original, which is more […]

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