Thursday, 27 November 2008

Readings from Paradise Lost duly commenced at 6.30pm this evening under the freckled wooden ceiling and cheese-coloured stone walls of Christ Church St Laurence, an Anglican church operating in the Anglo-Catholic tradition near Central Station in Sydney.

It is an elegant choice of venue by the organisers, mostly academics from the universities of Sydney and New South Wales. The icons and gold, the stained glass and dark wood added a kind of sympathetic aura to the clipped verbs of the readers.

Cathy Sherry as Eve stood out, being the only woman speaking in an environment where a woman's voice travels far more effectively than the hollow tones of a man's. Sherry's delivery lacked some vital spice, though. The audience may have been to blame, but it is hard to blame an audience when they are attending an event that has almost no precedent.

Beverley Sherry, an honorary associate at the University of Sydney, provided the essential glue - along with a modest amount of praise for the dead poet - in her narrative. She introduced the actors.

But here's the thing: none of them are, in fact, actors, and a work of such depth as Milton's 1667 poem requires measure and emotion - a sort of earnest pronouncement - in addition to correct diction and eagerness.

A good time was had by all. I spoke with another attendee on the steps outside, in front of the church's mesmerisingly red door, and she noted that the rarity of the occasion made it almost unnecessary for the readers to be any good.

There's no doubt that Milton is an excellent poet. Nevertheless, there's a certain perfection - verging on sterility - that is absent in Shakespeare. Where Milton finds the word most apropos, Shakespeare strikes a spark like life itself.

The deficiency in the readings underscores this coldness. We must be wary, however.

Because the fact is that nobody - almost - reads Milton nowadays. He was effectively banished from the Eden of popularity by the firm push towards a more humanist platform that took place in the 19th century.

I would welcome more of this kind of thing. An element of feedback, heard by the readers and organisers, would help them to focus. It is difficult - almost impossible - to practice any art in a vacuum. Unfortunately for them, the vash washing sound of cars on George Street outside the church, like a huge vacuum cleaner attempting to suck everything delicate and rare out of our society, is the dominant sound.

It is the sound of the streets.

And while those streets may sometimes have an awning for covering, a poet like Milton is best experienced within more substantial, protective shelter. A cloister.

The 19th century Romantics understood this. It is fitting (though not in the least surprising) that William Blake's illustrations were used by organisers to decorate an eight page pamphlet produced on the occasion.

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