Story and photos by Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau
Under the shade of one of the oldest trees on Grand Canyon University’s campus, Dr. Jonathan Olson and fellow literature lovers on Friday read aloud the entirety of John Milton’s epic masterpiece, “Paradise Lost.”
Apples tied to lower branches of the majestic shamel ash, which towers over the picnic area east of Building 23, gave a hint to the subject of the marathon reading: "Paradise Lost" is about man’s fall from the Garden of Eden.
“This is amazing,” said alumnus Luke Armago, an Honors College program manager who bicycled over to sit on the grass for an interlude. “It gives such presence to this story.”
Students, faculty and staff from across campus attended the marathon reading -- which began at 9 a.m. and ended at 6:20 p.m. – for an hour here and there. Some remained for the whole reading.
“In total, we read 10,565 lines of iambic pentameter verse (that is, five stresses per line, commonly 10 syllables per line),” said Olson, an assistant professor in GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “In most editions, without extensive footnotes, the poem runs about 300 pages.”
Dr. Timothy Larkin, a sociology faculty member, took a turn reading from the classic because he supports celebrating significant works.
“This is such a great example of the Christian worldview being established through literature,” Larkin said. “This is a classic, and reading a classic is the kind of thing a university does.”
Olson is among scholars and translators who produced ‘‘Milton in Translation,’’ published to coincide with the 350th anniversary of Milton’s masterpiece.
“Milton wrote 'Paradise Lost' in the style of the heroic epic that includes Virgil’s Roman 'Aeneid' but dates back to Homer’s 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey,' which themselves derive from a narrative tradition of oral performance,” Olson said. “Reading 'Paradise Lost' silently, by sight alone, is quite worthwhile, but many of Milton’s poetic effects depend on being heard.”
Even those who had never before heard of Milton or "Paradise Lost" found themselves lulled by such beautifully wrought descriptions as:
Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill'd
All Heav'n, and in the blessed Spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffus'd:
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen
Most glorious, in him all his Father shon
Substantially express'd, and in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeerd,
Love without end, and without measure Grace,
Which uttering thus he to his Father spake.
“This is a story that is highly talked about. He (Milton) takes a lot of detail from the Bible and brings it to life,” said Brian Nordheim, a biology major enrolled in Honors English. “He adds detail and personalization to Biblical characters.”
Alec Shingler, an IT major also enrolled in Honors English, said he was surprised at how much the story compelled him.
“It’s an epic about the fall of man and the Garden of Eden,” he said. “It’s cool. It sounds like a book I want to read.”
Some of Milton's most vivid descriptions pertain to Satan, such as:
The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either — black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seem'd his head
the likeness of a kingly crown had on.
Satan was now at hand.
Dr. James Helfers, an English faculty member who took turns reading and listening, said the spoken word can be profound.
“As I sit here, I suddenly get a little bit more of a sense of the power of these words,” Helfers said. “Milton is telling this story in the most magnificent way he can figure out how to do. This is like going to a concert. There’s nothing like going to a concert to appreciate the music.”
Though Nathan Alberts is an English major, he was previously a stranger to the epic -- but he appreciated the introduction.
“It’s good to have it out here,” he said, indicating the grassy spot near the Quad. “People walking by can perhaps catch some of the intent.”
Such comments were music to the ears of Cymelle Edwards, editor in chief of “Startlebloom, The GCU Literary Review” and a member of GCU’s growing writing community.
“I’m so happy we have something like this on campus,” Edwards said.
Olson said that students Kara Sutton and Maddy Knutson helped determine the estimated marathon time by reading it for an hour to see how many lines – 19 per minute -- could be read comfortably in that time.
As the last word was read Friday afternoon, most of the audience stayed put, Olson said.
“They lingered, I think, because they recognized they had achieved a rare experience together," Olson said. " After imaginatively traversing the entire cosmos, and heaven and hell beyond, returning to the mundanity of this world can seem bittersweet.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].