John Milton, Poetry Genius

Milton rewards close reading. Readers have known this for centuries. For my money, Jonathan Richardson said it best in 1734:

A reader of Milton must be Always upon Duty; he is Surrounded with Sense, it rises in every Line, every Word is to the Purpose; There are no Lazy Intervals, All has been Consider’d, and Demands, and Merits Observation. Even in the Best Writers you Sometimes find Words and Sentences which hang on so Loosely you may Blow ’em off; Milton’s are all Substance and Weight (315).

The actor Bradley Cooper recently said it less eloquently in an interview for the January 2014 issue of GQ:

Milton, bro? Milton. Fuckin’—that was the end of it. Motherfucker’s 57 or whatever, blind, dictating it to his fucking daughter-nurse—Paradise Lost? I mean, I just couldn’t… That poem fucking killed me. Satan? That character was un-fucking-believable. I could taste him in my mouth, dude, reading that. I really, really, for some reason, connected with that poem.

Richardson may not have tasted Satan in his mouth, but frankly I think one could do no worse than to be surrounded by sense. Richardson’s warning that the reader of Milton must always be on duty is something that I think deserves our attention as readers and teachers of Milton. I am hard pressed to think of an author who better rewards close attention.

Close reading is a skill that seems diametrically opposed to the tendencies most prevalent in our undergraduate students these days. Technology is constantly putting new demands on attention – training us to pay attention for shorter and shorter spans of time punctuated by anxious wiping of smartphone glass or scrolling through Facebook feeds. The deep attention required to do close reading is hard to come by. (If you just clicked that last link and were distracted by Hayles’ article about deep and hyper attention, welcome back from the rabbit hole of medium-driven irony).

John Milton, Poetry Genius

John Milton, Poetry Genius

One way to foster close reading, however, is to put technology to work. Enter Poetry Genius. Poetry Genius, an offspring of Rap Genius, fosters close reading by providing a free, open, and easy to use annotation platform. Through crowd-sourced annotation and discussion of annotation, the site promotes close reading as a way to engage a text and other readers. It also allows one to create a sort of digital edition of a work that can link references, echoes, and allusions into one big beautiful ball of language and sense.

A quick example or two might suffice to show how this works particularly well with Milton. Take a quick look at the Poetry Genius version of Eikonoklastes, particularly this annotation at the spot where Milton skewers Charles for plagiarizing Pamela’s prayer.

As you can see, the annotation directs readers to the corresponding moment in Eikon Basilike, which itself contains an annotation inviting readers to compare Charles’ purported prayer with Pamela‘s. One can imagine further annotations to highlight the similarities or (better) differences between the versions of the prayer.

Another, more playful, example is this annotation that points out linkages between the Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino film Devil’s Advocate and Paradise Lost, De Doctrina Christiana, and Areopagitica. Through an offbeat popular culture reference, the connective tissue of Milton’s soteriology begins to take shape across his diverse corpus.

You can even find Cooper’s comments on Paradise Lost annotated on the Poetry Genius site.

Poetry Genius was originally designed to remain an open platform, meaning all posts are public. This is, of course, a nice way to teach the final step of the writing process (publication) and to encourage thoughtful and well-written interactions through social media. However, instructors wishing to remain somewhat private or who want students to start with a clean text can create a “cloned” and annotation-free copy of a text for their class to annotate. The posts are still public, but remain out of the mainstream of the site’s traffic and are prefaced with a warning that this version is intended for your class alone.

Milton has the distinction of prompting the first-ever annotated English literary edition, the 1695 folio edition of Paradise Lost with 300+ pages of annotations by the somewhat elusive “P.H.” or Patrick Hume. Inviting students to follow in Hume’s footsteps and annotate Milton as they read allows them to enter into a dialog with Milton and with other readers of Milton. If they remain “upon Duty,” such annotators might tease out sense and meaning that they would otherwise miss.

As part of its crowd-sourcing strategy, the website is gamified. It rewards annotators with achievement points for posting annotations and for giving feedback and suggestions on those posted by others. But the real reward for students at all levels is learning to read closely and think deeply about texts that have “substance and weight.”

– David A. Harper, December 2013

Poetry Genius has a short introductory video here:


Jonathan Richardson from Early Lives of Milton, Helen Darbishire, ed. 1932.


This entry was posted in Academics, Milton, teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

A thoughtful reply is the life-blood of a master spirit (so leave one)