You may not know that I am a big fan of Anton Lesser, whose voice in the title role of Falco on BBC Radio 7 entranced and entrapped me. I can honestly say that I would enjoy listening to him reciting the London telephone directory (if such a thing exists any more) or endless shipping forecasts or something written in a language I neither speak or understand.
It was in that spirit that I downloaded a free lecture from John Carey (halfway down the page for Paradise Lost there's a link for the free download from Naxos books) on the poetry of Milton, because it featured live readings by Anton Lesser. I didn't expect to enjoy or understand the lecture, as I have only vague knowledge of Milton and do not know his work at all well. I suppose I should confess I had another - very slight - reason for having an interest in the content. The Quaker meeting I (infrequently, currently) attend recently celebrated its 350th anniversary and I discovered in my researches about its history that Thomas Ellwood, who prepared the accounts in a fantastically beautiful flowing hand for the first purpose-built meeting house in Uxbridge in 1693, was also Milton's amanuensis, needed as Milton's sight failed.
I had read Thomas Ellwood's journal, in which he takes the credit for the subject of Paradise Regained, and emulates his master in poetic form. I like him, and am interested in him and his time.
Being too sleepy to get down to work (the dog having kept me awake overnight, asking to go out) I decided to listen this morning to the free lecture I had downloaded some days ago, and I was surprised to find myself not only enjoying the accomplished and intelligent readings from Anton Lesser, but also the talk about the poetry by John Carey. I was intrigued that I knew so little about Milton's poetry, and that I hadn't realised how accessible it was - or seemed - with the readings and explanation. Some of it was so beautiful. The reading does make all the difference to that: I have always said that it makes an immense difference if the person doing the reading really understands and loves the words that they are saying. Even though the content remains the same in terms of the words, if Shakespeare or Milton are read by people who do not understand them, they will be gibberish, and convey very little.
Anton Lesser's reading is gentle and so full of emotion and understanding, that the sense of the words comes over even when sometimes if you stop and think about the individual words it is quite difficult to penetrate the meanings. And John Carey had chosen extremely well. The words do sing. I have found myself throughout the day returning to listen again.
I liked the fact that I am beginning to feel I know the period that Milton was writing in, having studied it in drawing up the history of my meeting, but I was surprised to learn that Milton thought he was writing new chapters of the bible in writing his works. That hadn't come across in the writings of Thomas Ellwood. Mind you, Ellwood wrote some execrable poetry in imitation of Milton. I like his prose writing very much, but his poetry is just terrible. I would be incapable of telling you why I think Milton's poetry is great and Thomas Ellwood's is not, but I feel that I know both to be true. Thomas Ellwood is an interesting journal writer, and a very human observer of some of the important people who lived during the founding of the Quakers. But no one would call him a great poet. The words of Milton, as read by Anton Lesser, sent my flying off to find the passage in Paradise Lost where Adam made the decision to follow Eve's fall:
How can I live without thee, how forgoe
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn'd,
To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn? [ 910 ]
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another Rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no no, I feel
The Link of Nature draw me: Flesh of Flesh,
Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State [ 915 ]
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe....
As soon as I can afford them, I will buy the whole reading of Paradise Lost... for now repetitive listening to the lecture will have to suffice.