Tonight at 7:30 or so I’ll begin the 11th annual University of Mary Washington all-night Paradise Lost readathon. I’m not well-rested and my mind is not at all centered, not even a little bit, really, no, but even so underneath all the epidermis (thick as it’s ever been) I do feel a little tingle of anticipation. I know at least two former students will be there, which is an especially dear prospect this time. I hope there’s a decent turnout from the Milton seminar I’m teaching this spring. I think at least a couple of curious students will be on hand from the other courses I’m teaching this term (Film/Text/Culture, and two sections of Introduction to Literary Studies). At some point my wife and our two children will be there for a while. These things alone make the night more than worthwhile.
But this year there’s a little more, I suppose. I feel more than a bit of wonder that this year marks the thirteenth time I’ve read this work all the way through in one sitting overnight. Twenty-seven years ago, in the fall of 1980, I was enrolled in Wally Kerrigan’s graduate class in Milton at the University of Virginia. Wally had just come off a year’s leave in which he’d written his masterpiece, The Sacred Complex, and he was fully wired with the ideas that had emerged during that year’s study. Sometimes the class meetings were so charged with vision that I couldn’t bear to leave the room afterwards, and would stay and huddle with my fellow grad students in the class who were feeling the inspiration just as fully as I was. Once I even surreptitiously put a Captain Beefheart line on the board before Wally came into the room, hoping it would please him (he had a beautiful Captain Beefheart poster in his office). I thought it more creative than an apple or a bunch of flowers.
At one point about midway through the semester, just as we were starting Paradise Lost, Wally casually mentioned that the best way to read the epic the first time was to read it all in one sitting, preferably overnight. Young, childless, and eager for enlightenment, I took him up on the invitation. I found the experience overwhelming. The next day, I came to class and told Wally that the beginning of Book 9, the book in which Adam and Eve fall, had left me shaken and grieving, so splendid and loving and strange and uncanny had been the Paradise Milton had imagined. Wally replied, “you had the experience!”
That I had. (Thank you, Wally.) True to my nature, I reasoned that it didn’t have to be the only time I’d have that experience. So tonight I embark on the twelfth subsequent voyage through Hell, Heaven, and our wildly abundant universe. (I did the all-night reading with a class for the first time in San Diego in 1994.)
I blogged about the last readathon, in 2005, here. It’s the same story. But it’s worth retelling.