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A Milton Marathon
posted April 3, 2007

At 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 14, when the 10 members of David Urban’s Milton class convene at the Fish House at Calvin College, they will be continuing a grand literary tradition: the Milton Marathon.

The class (and any students, faculty staff and friends they can persuade to join them) will read Milton’s Paradise Lost in its entirety. The reading will last until 6 p.m.

“People would be surprised at how quickly it goes,” says Urban, a Calvin English professor and Milton specialist. “We’re actually able to do 10,000 lines in about nine hours -- if they don’t kick us out halfway through,” he says with a chuckle.

The marathon will read in shifts.

“You read about a hundred lines at a time, and then someone else goes, or if you want to keep going, that’s okay too,” Urban says of the informal set-up. “The great thing is, you get the totality of Paradise Lost. It’s a reading in community of the greatest British writer who falls within the Reformed tradition.”

The community experience adds to the reading, he says.

“Usually when you’re reading something like this you’re by yourself. You may take an inordinate length of time looking at the footnotes or perhaps looking up words in the dictionary. This is an event where you’re enjoying the beauty of the text and the story and doing it with others.”

Equally important to the Milton Marathon, says its founder, is the experience of reading Paradise Lost out loud.

“Poetry is sound, first of all, not words,” quoth Ed Ericson, English professor emeritus and the Milton specialist in the department prior to Urban’s arrival four years ago. “When you read poetry aloud, and when you hear it read aloud, you feel the rhythm of the language, you get rhyme, you get other musical devices. And the sound and sense ought to match each other.”

Ericson began the Milton Marathon in 1997 after hearing about similar events at other colleges.

“If students are going to do crazy marathons on whatever -- think of the hula hoop -- why not do something highbrow?”

He says his students were enthusiastic about the idea, and the event typically had a good turnout of students and professors from many disciplines. (Ericson even remembers former professor John Hare reading from his 17th century copy of Paradise Lost).

“I must say that the students sort of mangled the blank verse early on,” he recalls, “but with every second and third time they took a turn, they got better and better.”

Urban hopes the tradition, which he revived in 2005 when he took over the Milton course, will also rejuvenate interest in great authors.

“In the English department, we have some momentum with the creative writing courses and keeping student excited about writing poetry and that sort of thing,” he says. “We want to make sure we keep students excited about upper-division literature courses: Shakespeare, Chaucer and others.”

Also, Urban (who in 2005 was among several authors honored with the Irene Samuel Award from the Milton Society of America for his contribution to Milton’s Legacy) is always happy to give wider exposure to the author he has studied so intently.

“Milton said his poem was for a fit audience, though few. But there’s no reason that fit audience shouldn’t read it together.”

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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