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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Before plunging into the controversies surrounding this poem, we should note that Paradise Lost is an epic, the great Protestant epic poem in English. Milton is deliberately attempting to write what for him and countless other poets is acknowledged as the highest challenge to poetic genius and which will, if he is successful, enable him to take his place with the great epic poets of all times: Homer, Virgil, and Dante.

An epic poem is characteristically a long narrative which, following the tradition established by Homer, is written in twelve or twenty-four books. Its epic quality comes from the scope which the work sets out for itself. Typically epic poems are all-encompassing cultural visions, with a huge scope which explores all aspects of a particular moment of civilization. Such poems explore big questions: the vision of an entire society, the relationship between human beings and the divine, the essential qualities which establish and perpetuate a certain moral vision of life, the historical framework and future destiny of a nation, and so on. Thus, epics are more than just stories; they are celebrations of what makes a particular culture what it is. For the ancient Greeks, at least until the rise of philosophy, Homer's epics were the source of all the knowledge that mattered most; for the Romans, Virgil provided the vision of how they saw themselves. Dante's Divine Comedy has long been consider the greatest poetic celebration of his own medieval culture.

Now, what's curious about epics is that they are often written after the passing of the civilization which they are holding up for our inspection; they are, as one writer (whose name escapes me) has remarked, "celebrations of a culture at the moment of its passing away." Homer's poems are about a civilization hundreds of years previously; Virgil's celebration of Roman virtues comes just as the republican values which made Rome great were transforming themselves into imperial power. By Dante's time, the forces which were to overthrow his vision of the world were already gaining momentum. And Milton's great poem is written after the failure of the great Protestant experiment in republican government, the Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell, which after Cromwell's death quickly fell apart so that the monarchy, which Cromwell had ended by executing Charles I, had to be restored. Now old and blind and in disrepute (for he had been Cromwell's secretary and an active participant in the great republican experiment), Milton poured his imagination into a vision of the nobility of the religion he so passionately fought for.

Writers of poetic epics, with one eye on Homer and Virgil, commonly use a set of conventions first established in the Iliad. The structure usually plunges the reader into the middle of the story, and the style of narration relies heavily on dramatic interchanges, set speeches. Typically epics will consciously rely upon allusions to or borrowings from other famous epics and will recreate in their own way many of the famous events from Homer and Virgil (e.g., the war in heaven). By tradition, epics aim at a certain nobility and gravity in their language. And this has a direct effect on the style (for example, in the long Homeric similes). Hence to set out to write an epic, as Milton does, is to have to deal with a set of conventions. Part of the pleasure of reading such a poem can be the recognition of the poet's skill in making allusions to earlier poems or in adapting famous incidents to his own purposes.

There is no doubt that Milton is very self-consciously using the material of earlier epics, and there is equally no doubt that he wants the reader to appreciate his enormous learning, the vast extent of his reading in more than a dozen languages, and the skill he has in summoning up various allusions or direct references to classical mythology and literature, the Bible, all sorts of Church documents, and so on. Milton is the first author we are reading who has had access to and has read an enormous amount of printed material from classical and Christian sources. He is also the first major author we read who wrote primarily to be read rather than heard (a point Ricks makes in his analysis of Milton's style).

However, the first important literary critical point we need to establish here is that following conventions well does not therefore convey literary merit. The test of the poet is to bring the conventions alive, to reinvigorate them, perhaps even to transform them. Merely following an established convention or merely making frequent reference to Homer or Virgil does not automatically confer quality. And the mere fact that a particular event is a famous incident in an earlier poem is no justification for a later treatment of it if the later poet uses that event but presents it badly. In other words, no appeal to earlier conventions justifies botching the job of writing poetry, or, in Dr. Johnson's much more pithy phrase: no precedents justify absurdity. This point I shall be coming back to repeatedly with reference to Milton, whose incorporation of material from other works is often excessively laboured (like the lists of allusions to famous monsters) or downright silly (like the war in heaven, where all the combatants are immortal, or the mention of angels' sex lives).

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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia


Paradise Lost As an Epic Poem

Milton as a Protestant

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

Some Narrative Considerations

Justification of God's Ways: Part I

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

Justification of God's Ways: Part 2

The Opening Drama



Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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