Monday, September 9, 2013

Milton and Oral Literature

One of the greatest weaknesses of contemporary literary studies is that they reduce 'literature' to text alone, whereas many of the great works--from the Homeric epics to Shakespeare's plays to the Qu'ran--were intended for performance/recitation in front of live audiences, in vital, interactive settings. It is wonderful that we have textual formats as a means of preserving these works throughout the ages, but in approaching them, we need to understand that they are the ashes left over after the flame has been extinguished.They represent yet another degree of separation from the original thoughts and feelings of the authors and can convey only partial meaning.

Having listened to various recordings of Milton's Paradise Lost, I feel that the same is the case for texts that were originally oral in nature. Until last week, I was unaware that Milton was blind when he 'wrote' Paradise Lost and thus would work long into the night composing and memorizing sections to be transcribed the following morning by an aide. Listening to his words, I feel as though Milton himself is speaking, and I understand him better as an author and a human being. There is a tenderness and intimacy that is 'lost in transcription,' and I think it is somewhere in this lost verbal and emotive aspect that the true soul of the work--the Genius behind it--is hidden.

I wanted to share a short clip of a Qu'ran recitation, because I think especially in western cultures, we neglect to some extent some of the great oral poetry of the world. I think Milton would have found great beauty in the words of the Qu'ran, so I've included below a verse from one my favorite surahs as well as a short recitation of a different selection:

"If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement."


  1. Arab culture is rich in the written and spoken word. They hold it at much higher a value than any other culture I've encountered, certainly over any other that I've studied.

  2. Making that connection of a prized orality in another culture is appropriate and interesting. I hope that you will continue to explore this important aspect of Milton (orality) and consider how this influenced the development and reception of his works. Well done.