Close Reading from Far Away

“For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return.” (PL , IX.250-1)


I went to the Catskills to read in silence, to pore over a text I love and let it pour over me, to let it remind me why I love it and why much of my intellectual life has been devoted to studying it. The nearest village to the rustic cabin I rented was Big Indian, New York. If you are ever up that way, wending your way along scenic Route 28 past all the villages that were displaced by the creation of the Ashokan reservoir, you can’t miss it. If you pass the statue of the Big Indian, you’ve gone too far.

Big Indian, NY

Big Indian, NY

In a grad seminar at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (more years ago than I really want to say) Professor Wally Kerrigan suggested that the class should read Paradise Lost in one sitting. This wasn’t to suggest a marathon reading/tag-team performance of the sort becoming somewhat popular these days. No, Wally’s suggestion was that we should find a private place and read the poem through from beginning to end. I’m somewhat ashamed to report that, back then, this seemed an unreasonable request. After all, my eldest daughter was still in diapers, another was on the way, and it was the final semester before I would depart for my first gig as an instructor at West Point. I read the poem in chunks, the way most read it, the way we typically assign it to undergrads. Sorry, Wally.

But I’ve realized recently and with some dismay that Milton’s great poem has become something of a resource for me – I read it constantly, but constantly in bits and pieces, through passages encountered in critical articles, conference presentations, and books. I can leaf through the poem quickly to find the passage or two I’m writing about at the moment. I can dip into it like a reference to find some connection, some grist for whatever article I’m grinding out in the servile mill of academic achievement. I’m constantly reading it through the lens of some criticism or another – either the one I’m crafting or one I’m reading and evaluating. Having worked a lot on the poem’s 18th century critics, my reading of the poem is often through their often-idiosyncratic perspectives. Read this way, the poem is put in service of some argument, and I read and reread it – pieces of it, like vivisectioned lexia in Barthes’s S/Z – with its entire context in the background, but without letting it speak for itself, as a whole.

This is probably not uncommon among academics, even those of us who specialize in one author or one work. But you know, years can go by this way — and I’m sorry report that years did. I recently realized with something akin to shame that the last time I read Paradise Lost for itself, to enjoy it, was in about 2009. And incidentally, back in 2009, while in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I read the epic with a particular frame of mind – one just a tad more pissed off at Milton’s God than usual. So this Spring Break I found myself in Big Indian, belatedly following Wally’s advice in a cabin that wasn’t quite snowbound, but was private enough to allow me the luxury of simply reading.

My reading and writing retreat for Spring Break, 2014

My reading and writing retreat for Spring Break, 2014

My willingness – my desire – to go out of my way in order to read and reread without distraction is probably a reflection of my recent concern about how my students (and my daughter, now in high school) read. I’ve become increasingly concerned that for a segment of our population, time spent simply reading seems wasted if one isn’t also streaming a movie on a second screen, checking social media every few minutes, or seeing what is new on Spotify. Have we lost the habit of getting lost among words? Are we in danger of losing the simple pleasure of settling in to read a significant amount of text without stopping every few lines to Tweet or check Instagram or play a few rounds of Flappy Bird? I might not be winning that battle with my students or with my daughter, but for myself I determined this would be the year to inaugurate a new annual tradition to reread the works that define me with the attention they deserve.

By clever course design or by fate, I had no grading to do over the break, so that wouldn’t be hanging over my head. But with a mixture of reluctance and relief, I had to set aside the articles, chapters, and revisions that I’m (still) desperately behind in finishing.  In order to minimize distractions, I used a clean copy of the poem so I wouldn’t be distracted by my previous notes, and an edition without excessive annotation. The paperback Modern Library edition, edited by Wally, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon was perfect.

Reading by oil lamp

Essential supplies: an oil lamp, some honey mead, a wood fire.

For the record, it takes me about eleven and a half hours to read Paradise Lost through. That includes a reasonable break to make a charcuterie and cheese plate to accompany the mead; for, in my opinion, one must quaff immortality and joy somewhere around Book V. It also includes time enough to read some of it aloud, at least those passages that seem to demand it – and there are many.


So what did I learn?

I experienced in a way that I never have before – or at least in a way I had perhaps forgotten – how the poem builds through its entire structure. It actually made me appreciate those passages of the book that Dryden dismissed as “flats” – the scriptural history unfolded by Michael in Books XI and XII. This may have something to do with becoming more aware of the role of the protoevangelium as a sort of riddle that Adam is trying to solve, an unfolding that is all the more powerful because it remains a riddle to readers.

I found connections that I hadn’t consciously considered before, particularly between Milton’s invocations and some of the descriptions and events and characterizations in the narrative proper.

I found a new appreciation for the differences in syntax between characters, particularly as I read some of the speeches aloud in my empty cabin. If, as we suspect, many early-modern readers mumbled as they read (and when did that stop, by the way?), the sound and syntax of these speeches probably resounded for them in much the same way.

Most importantly, up there in Big Indian, I found that I can indeed still silence the voices of four hundred years of critical thought that sometimes threaten come between me and the text. I could listen carefully to the poem itself and hear Milton again. That was worth the trip.

-David A. Harper , 2014


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2 Responses to Close Reading from Far Away

  1. “For solitude sometimes is best society,
    And short retirement urges sweet return.” (PL , IX.250-1)

    Didn’t that solitude lead to a little problem in Milton’s view?

    (Much as with the protagonist in my Milton-inspired story, for that matter . . .)

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. john rumrich says:

    Terrific post, Dave. Thanks for sharing the trip.

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