Regaining Paradise

If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject of poetry, you may well have come to the conclusion that my poetic tastes tend towards shorter poetic forms such as haiku and lyric poetry.  That’s probably a fair assessment, but every now and then I like to immerse myself in longer works of poetry too (at least for reading — my attemts to write poetry have so far been confined to shorter pieces and I don’t currently feel any inspiration to write anything longer).

At the moment, I am working my way through John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.  This is widely hailed as a masterpiece of English literature and a copy has sat on my shelf for the last 3 years, waiting to be read (I’ve been meaning to read it for much longer, but that’s when I actually got round to getting a copy).  The poem is divided into twelve books (ten in the first edition) and, apparently, contains over 10,000 lines of verse so I’d say it’s definitely epic in length, at least. 🙂

It is written in blank verse (i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameter), which is quite a common metre for English poetry — it has been claimed that up to three quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse.  Shakespeare was another early proponent of blank verse, but apparently Milton was amongst the first people to use it significantly (and well) for non-dramatic poetry.

This is not the first time I’ve read, or at least started, an epic poem.  However, more-or-less by definition, any epic poem is too long to be read at a single sitting (unless you have plenty of time and a very comfortable chair) and I usually find myself reading part of an epic and then putting it aside for too long and losing the plot.  This time, I’m aiming to read a book each day, which breaks it into manageable chunks.

In general, I prefer to read poetry aloud, so that I can fully appreciate its sound (which, after all, is an essential part of what poetry is all about); by contrast, I usually try to read prose silently and without subvocalising so I can read it faster.  Since the first two books of Paradise Lost each took me about three quarters of an hour to read aloud, even going at a fairly fast pace, and since my time for reading each day is fairly limited, I’ve decided to go for a compromise and mostly read it quietly but with subvocalisation, pausing occasionally to reread particularly juicy phrases out loud.  This approach seems to be yielding an average reading time of about 20 minutes per book which, hopefully, makes it feasible to stick to my target of one book per day.  At that rate, I should have finished reading Paradise Lost just before Easter.

My plan, once I finish Paradise Lost, is to try to keep reading epic poetry on a fairly regular basis, in manageable chunks (the idea being to try to read any given epic in daily doses but probably to have longer breaks between poems).  Next up on my epic poetry reading list will probably be Paradise Regained, John Milton’s sequel to Paradise Lost (which I have bound in the same volume).  I shall then probably revisit some of the epic poems I’ve previously tried to read and not yet got round to finishing.  The ones that spring to mind are the Iliad (I’m just over half-way through it, reading a parallel text Greek-English edition mostly in English with occasional forays into the Greek), Dante’s Divine Comedy (I’ve read Henry Longfellow’s translation up to about the middle of Purgatorio – the second of three volumes – so I’ll finish this one, although someday I’d like to tackle it in Italian) and the Kalevala (again, in translation, as I doubt I’ll ever learn enough Finnish to read the original; I got about half-way through this one too — there seems to be a pattern developing). With each of these, I’ll have to decide whether to try and pick up the thread from where I previously got to (I think my bookmarks are still in all the relevant volumes) or to start again from scratch.

I’m not sure whether Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales count strictly as epic poetry but I’ll probably add them to my list and see if I can complete my long-ago started project of reading the whole lot (in Middle English, of course).  And then there’s the rest of Chaucer to read, as well as Piers Plowman and quite a lot of other Middle and Old English verse (including Beowulf in at least two modern translations as well as the original language!), not to mention many other epic poems from around the world and across the centuries.  In short, I’m not going to run out of poetic reading matter any time soon!

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  1. Edie

     /  2013/03/21

    First day of spring by Matsuo Basho
    First day of spring–
    I keep thinking about
    the end of autumn.

    • I’ve read quite a few of Basho’s haiku (in translation), but I don’t recall coming across that one before. I like it. 🙂

  2. The direct impetus for reading Paradise Lost now came from listening to Haydn’s “The Creation” the other day and reading the liner notes, which mentioned that Paradise Lost was one of the main sources for Haydn’s libretto. It’s only now that I’ve got as far as Book VII, which is mostly devoted to an expanded retelling of the creation story, that I can see the link.


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