Paradise Lost: Cambridge Lectures

Paradise Lost: Cambridge Lectures

On a beautiful spring morning in March, Laura Priestley and I took a 30-strong group up to the Cambridge Union for a day of lectures on Paradise Lost, a key A level text. I had heard Dr
Fred Parker (from Clare College) lecture on King Lear last year and he did not disappoint this time round. His lecture “Free to Fall” raised the vexed issue of how Milton understands Eve’s desire for knowledge, for when we consider the Humanist age out of which this poem came – and Milton’s own status as the most knowledgeable and curious of poets – his stance on Eve’s consumption of the fruit is bound to seem ambivalent to us.

Where Dr Parker considered Eve’s relation to Satan, Dr Joe Moshenska (Trinity College) focused on Adam and Eve; his lecture “Solitude is Sometimes Best Society” drew on Adam’s words to Eve and explored modern and early modern conceptions of loneliness, solitude (not the same thing if you think about it) and society. Eve’s desire for solitude was felt by Dr Moshenska to be entirely reasonable and thus his lecture perfectly complemented Dr Parker’s, which had asserted the validity of Eve’s pursuit of knowledge. Dr Moshenska ranged far and wide, taking account of conceptions of society and individuality in Hannah Arendt, Andrew Marvell, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Thomas Browne – strange bedfellows, I agree – before engaging in a close reading of Milton’s epic. In particular, Dr Moshenska singled out a peculiar moment in book VIII when God, in response to Adam’s desire for a mate, speaks of his own eternal solitude. Dr Moshenska ended his lecture by juxtaposing an etching by Rembrandt of Adam and Eve consuming the fruit with Masaccio’s fresco of the Expulsion and he noted of the latter that the scriptural inaccuracy of their being depicted as naked after the Fall might perhaps be related to ideas of both intimacy and vulnerability. Their nakedness crystallises the fact of their being alone together or together alone.

The day ended with a lecture which took us from page to stage. Discussion of the dramatic aspects of Milton’s poem focused on Milton’s blank verse, considered from an actor’s point of view. This lecture reminded us that Milton’s poem has dramatic qualities: Book IX in particular is mostly composed of dialogue and soliloquy and in both these respects draws on ‘Jacobethan’ influences. It is its epic magnitude alone which makes it ‘too large for the stage’ (that, and the need for Adam and Eve to appear naked, which even the greater licence of Restoration theatre could not sanction).

I am always glad to leave ‘interactivity’ to others, but braver souls than I – such as Rory King, Serena Hardwick and Jack Harrison – were happy to act out those sequences in Book IX which best lend themselves to performance. The organiser came up to me afterwards to say how bright, confident and engaged our group had been, compared to the other, more taciturn, members of the student audience. I couldn’t have agreed more. What a delightful and edifying day it turned out to be!

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