Memorizing Paradise Lost I
Bill Long 3/29/08
Some people spend their retirement in travel; some devote themselves to volunteer work; others vegetate. John Basinger, who retired in 1993 from a teaching position in a CT community college, decided he would try to commit Paradise Lost to memory. He doesn't claim to have a photographic memory; indeed, it took him eight years laboring 1-2 hours a day to complete his project (PL has 10,565 lines). This would come out to an average of nearly four lines a day, a not inconsiderable amount of quotitidan toil. He now "performs" portions of the epic at universities and community locations all over. He is gearing up for Dec. 9, 2008 celebration of the the 400th year anniversary of Milton's birth by planning a complete recitation of PL beginning that day. I would certainly like to be in attendance at that historic event.
My Own Memorization
I have begun my own memorization of PL but for reasons probably quite unlike those of Mr. Basinger. To date I only have about 130 lines "under my belt," but I am moving along at a good clip. I hesitate to write much about my memorization because of the truth of one of my "Billphorisms": "Tell people that you are memorizing something and they think you are a fool; show them the fruit of memorization and they think you are a genius.." Yet, I tell you here--maybe I am a fool.
I began memorizing PL this month more out of embarrassment than of anything else. Why? I was studying the history of some English words and I came across "pandemonium." Everyone knows that it means some kind of confusion or uproar, but I had forgotten (or never learned), that it owes its origin to John Milton, who used this word to describe the city that Satan and his minions were building for their capitol in Book I of PL--
"A solemn council forthwith to be held
At Pandemonium, the high Capitol
Of Satan and his Peers," I.755-57.
All of I sudden I felt chagrined and shamed, embarrassed beyond my ability to conceal it. I didn't know PL. Pure and simple. So, instead of deciding that I needed to "read it," perhaps at the pace of a book a day until finished, I told myself that the only remedy for this egregious and inexcusable ignorance was complete mastery of the poem--which means memorization and recitation.
I also had a similar reaction in 2007 when I missed a word, or someone else missed a word, at the Portland Spelling Bee. The word was guenon (gee KNOWN) a type of monkey. In the wake of my ignorance there, I got a book out of the library on monkeys, making lists of every species we knew; then I branched out to primates, then I decided to do a chart of the Linnaean classification system itself, then I realized that last year was the 300th year anniversary of Linnaeus' birth and so I decided I just needed to plunge myself into the mastery of the system for classifying and naming living things. But it was difficult for me to do it with Australian marsupials or microscopic bacteria; so I started with trees. After all, the trees won't move from day to day, so I could just go outside and look at them again and they would all be in the same spot--and I could gradually learn hundreds of Latin names for trees. Then, I branched off to bushes and flowers and plants. I became a fixture at every nursery within 50 miles of my home town, until I had "memorized " every variety of plant, tree or bush they sell in nurseries. Often salespeople would become disgusted with me when they saw that I was pumping them for information about their plants when I didn't have any intention of buying them.
The point is this: I treated my ignorance of something as not simply a reality or an inconvenient truth; rather I saw it as the kind of intellectual and moral lapse that could only be remedied with the most extreme focus and mastery. But as I began to memorize I saw that what had been entered into because of personal mortification actually continued because of the power of what I was reading and the joy of discovering new and improved ways of saying things. Like a person who "gets religion" and begins to train by running six miles a day and discovers as a bi-product of this effort the ability not simply to run longer without becoming winded but of greater alertness in life, a trimmer body, and more awareness of your circumstances, so I was becoming more attuned to clever, succinct and elevated ways of saying things.
Milton has already begun to creep into my speech in unexpected ways. First it is a word or two, then a clause, then an entire thought is brought in from him to characterize my feelings or a situation at hand. His description of Hell as a place where "hope never comes/ That comes to all," I.6-67, became a useful line for me to describe my feelings at being overwhelmed by the Oregon rains in March. When he describes Satan's despair in hell as he looks around, Milton says, "Round he throws his baleful eyes" I.56, and that line has become sort of a mantra for me as I glance around at all things when I am out in public. I say under my breath, "Round he throws his baleful eyes," as I occasionally look disapprovingly at things around me.
To the Text
If Milton's PL was only a repository of brief expressions that I find useful or humorous in approaching the world (I also, when I head out the door each morning, say aloud, "Mammon led them on," from I.678), I would still have my reward. But he is much richer, incomparably so. For, I have found, memorizing is like walking. When everyone else is driving along the road, or whizzing overhead in airplanes, the walker actually sees the world change before him/her one step at a time. Things are seen which are missed when you go fast. So, by memorizing, you have to stop on each line and try to figure out how it is related to other lines, which words are elided, where the action is "picked up" below. Milton is enamored of hiatus or gaps between subject and verb, so that you might have to wait four or five lines before you can "complete" the thought. I was memorizing the following lines a while back, and only by going slowly did I recognize what was happening. Here are the lines:
"that fixt mind (referring to Satan's mind)
And high disdain, from sense of injur'd merit,
That with the mightiest rais'd me to contend
And to the fierce contention brought along
Innumerable force of Spirits arm'd
That durst dislike his reign, and mee preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd
In dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav'n,
And shook his Throne," (I.97-105).
When I first "breezed through" these lines, I became tired, and felt I was missing everything. So, I slowed down, and I realized that the line "That with the mighties rais'd me to contend" was not completed until I dropped down four lines--"His utmost power with adverse power oppos'd/ In dubious Battle on the Plains of Heav'n..." It is as if the three lines in between are a sort of apostrophe, a turning away from the flow of the passage to allow inclusion of some subordinate but not unnecessary thought. In fact, this method of apostrophe helps give Milton some of his "grandness" in design and writing.
The next essay probes some other linguistic features of Book I--and how you benefit from "going slowly."
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long