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Epic Reading: Getting The Poem Right

A friend of mine, in response to some demurring, modest comment I made, pointed out that my hobby of reading epic poems (in translation) is… unusual.


It also wasn’t meant to be a habit. It just got a little bit out of hand.


Anyway, I’m somewhat interested in epic poems, and since I also work in theatre, one of my interests has been in their presentation. Thus one of my 12 Shows in the original plan was to do an epic poetry reading and see how it felt.


Initially, I’d planned to use Mallory’s L’morte d’Arthur, a chivalric romance. However, it’s both heavy and not immediately useful to me.


So instead I used Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work decidedly written to be read, which I possess in a portable and heavily-annotated edition.


I sat outside St Giles’ in the Barbican, where Milton happens to be buried (A genuine coincidence; I’d picked the venue because it was pretty and close to my afternoon rehearsals) and read through Books 2-3, then selections of Book 6.


A somewhat esoteric selection, but I’d read Book 1 aloud for practice, and then one of the listeners requested Book 6 (the War in Heaven section) or Book 7 (the Creation), and Book 7 is quite… dull by comparison.


Renewed Appreciation

As ever, reading Milton aloud draws attention to the quality and detail in the verse. It’s a hugely intricate text, which has a good sense of pace and some gorgeous images (also the phrase “sparkles dire”).


It manages to be exciting, with far more vivid characterisation than I’d remembered. Satan’s grandeur contrasts beautifully with various conniving fallen angels, upright servants of God, and God himself. Each has a distinct tone.


The mirroring of the councils of Hell and Heaven, and the comparable political wrangling of their leaders and their leaders’ chief supporters, sticks in the mind, as does the bitterness towards Heaven.


But the reading?


Was not a success.


Matters Of Setting


On a practical matter of geography, it was quite cold yesterday. Each book read took about 30-40 minutes. Not hugely pleasant.


Reflecting on my basic knowledge of literary culture in the period, my suspicion is that this is poetry to be read aloud, but in a domestic setting, potentially while people perform other tasks.


It is also sometimes difficult poetry to read, especially given Milton’s occasional delves into encyclopaedic lists of mythic figures and places. I also learnt that Milton probably writes for breathing on the colons, rather than (as Shakespeare) the full stops.


It also requires a fairly swift pace. At what I’d consider a ‘Victorian’ grand tempo, some of the longer descriptions drag (at least for a modern audience). It stops having the enthralling quality that I suspect it wants to have throughout.


How To Do Epic Readings Properly - Some Options


It might well be that with texts written for performance (such as the Iliad or Mahabharata) it is far easier to, well, perform them.


Perhaps Paradise Lost needs to be deliberately durational, presenting two books each evening for five days as an event.


One trick that seemed to work was sharing the reading between the group. The poem has clear episodes, at which someone could pass on the book.


I’d also be interested in getting together a larger group and playing with different forms of etiquette. Rather than quiet listening, what happens if people can call out their approval and enjoyment? What if there are are shared agreements about noises for disapproval of the characters? Such things are features of certain poetic performance traditions.


And, of course, having someone who’d practiced the sections first might help.


But for now, an interesting experiment to have tried with limited success, and definite learning.


Lithograph. A winged figure stands atop a crag, looking into a valley at sunrise.

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