“Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe.”
With Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis’ recitation of the first line of Paradise Lost, a marathon, all-day reading of John Milton’s epic poem contemplating the source of evil began outside the Humanities Building shortly after 9 am on April 19.
The reading was presented by the Department of English, part of a month-long celebration of National Poetry Month. Douglas Pfeiffer, an associate professor who led the reading, described the poem as a timeless and culturally relevant piece of literature.
“It’s nice to celebrate a remarkable poem, but in this time of the ascendancy of visual culture, it’s important to be reminded of what it’s like to engage with text in a sustained way,” said Pfeiffer. “This is a great poem about freewill and evil, and this gives us an occasion to think about both of those things.”
President McInnis, herself a cultural historian, offered a few words before kicking off the reading.
“It’s my pleasure to participate in today’s reading and to see this energy and enthusiasm and excitement for what is indeed one of the English language’s most powerful and enduring poems, one that has helped shape so much of the way we think,” she said. “I’m thrilled that the English department is bringing this enthusiasm out of the classroom and into the bigger world so that we can share it with others.”
After President McInnis read the opening lines, Pfeiffer took a turn, reciting more than 700 lines of the poem — from memory.
“I memorized them back when I was in graduate school because I loved the language so much, and I wanted to know this language that I love by heart,” he said. “So I made a decision to learn at least book one and then I just kept going. It took me about a year of free time to memorize.”
The reading continued throughout the day with participation by Provost Carl Lejuez, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Nicole Sampson, as well as many other faculty members, students and staff who took turns at the podium. The event concluded at sunset.
Pfeiffer cited the importance of connecting with a piece of work in an era where people are losing attention span because of the short form invitations presented by social media.
“Submitting to a great work and really thinking about it for a long time can give people something that they can’t get otherwise,” he said. “If the language is so great, it can’t hurt to hear it and experience it in its complete form.”
Launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, National Poetry Month celebrates poets’ integral role in our culture. The reading was the third time the Department of English has presented the all-day event, following readings in 2014 and 2018.
The poem, comprising 10,565 lines, was first published in 1667. Despite being written more than 350 years ago, Pfeiffer said Paradise Lost is particularly relevant to things that are going on in the world today.
“It’s a poem for all time,” he said. “It addresses questions of free will, which maybe we would construct as questions about freedom more generally. It’s a poem where Milton tries to explain the source of evil in the world, and those questions are always relevant. But maybe the best reason to be here is just that this is some of the greatest verse ever written in English and it’s a great story.”
— Robert Emproto