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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

The Critical Debate over Paradise Lost: Some General Comments

The arguments about Paradise Lost commonly begin by focusing on two aspects of the poem: first, the poetic style and, second, the handling of the story (including the nature of the main characters and the development of doctrine).

Hostile critics (especially F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot) argue that Milton's language is so artificially employed to develop an impressive sound and to display Milton's learning that the sense is constantly corrupted and the language becomes inert and frequently unintelligible. Milton's poem may often sound impressive, especially if one reads with only half attention, but upon intelligent analysis the style breaks down into a repetitive thumping rhythm and an often incomprehensible structure.

In arguing this point, such hostile critics commonly point to three stylistic features. First, the syntax (i.e., sentence structure) is extremely convoluted, incomplete, awkward, and confusing. Whatever language Milton thought in, he does not write (or dictate, since he dictated this poem to his daughters to transcribe) in clear, vivid, English. Second, Milton's language is excessively Latinized; he seems oblivious to common English usage and often confuses the reader with words which are either quite unfamiliar or which have primary meanings he clearly does not intend (e.g., in a famous example, Eve's use of the word "manuring" to refer to manual work; Milton seems oblivious to the possibility that readers will associate this word with a more common meaning and start imagining Adam and Eve spreading natural fertilizer on the plants in Eden). In addition the language is extraordinarily pedantic, unnecessarily scholarly. Finally, his poetical techniques are monotonous, often filled with irrelevant and exhausting figures of speech and scholarly allusions, with a complete lack of subtlety in his images, and so on. One of Eliot's comment is well known and worth quoting here:

"The most important fact about Milton, for my purpose, is his blindness. . . . Had Milton been a man of very keen senses--I mean of all the five senses--his blindness would not have mattered so much. But for a man whose sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural, it mattered a great deal. . . . Milton's images do not give this sense of particularity, nor are the separate words developed in significance. His language is . . . artificial and conventional. . . . Thus it is not so unfair, as it might at first appear, to say that Milton writes English like a dead language. . . . To extract everything possible from Paradise Lost, it would seem necessary to read it in two different ways, first solely for the sound, and second for the sense."

Furthermore, the hostile critics maintain (especially A. J. Waldock in his book Paradise Lost and Its Critics) Milton has botched the story. He has (for one reason or another) made Satan and Adam and Eve much more attractive than God. He tries to counteract this effect by telling the reader repeatedly that Satan is really a bad character, but in all Satan's early speeches the readers sense a grandeur and power that contradict the narrator's obvious desires about how we should interpret the story. And Eve and Adam are so sympathetically presented (especially in comparison with God) that in contrast with divine justice, their conduct seems exemplary. In other words, far from justifying the ways of God to man, Milton's poem succeeds only in, at best, showing a paradoxical opposition of the goodness in humanity and the glory and power of God or, at worst, the tyrannical irrationality of a God who can only manifest His glory by lies, torture, and ridicule.

Defenders of the poem have sought to justify Milton's style by offering detailed analysis of subtle poetic techniques (see Ricks in Milton's Grand Style) and by holding up felicities of expression missed by the hostile critics. Not all Miltonic similes are irrelevant displays of pedantic scholarship; in fact, many work in complex and significant ways to reinforce the meaning of a passage. Similarly, the frequent references to other texts are not all irrelevant displays of learning but carry important connotations.

Milton's handling of the story has been vigorously defended as well (see, for example, Fish's well known book Surprised by Sin). The paradoxes in the logic are intentional indications of man's inability (as a fallen creature) to comprehend the will of God, a central message of Milton's text.Milton deliberately makes Satan attractive to remind the reader of the seductive appeal of sin, especially pride. And if God seems austere, even harsh, that is because the reader's understanding is faulty. After all, each reader is, like Adam and Eve after the punishment, a fallen creature. Milton's treatment of the story thus succeeds because it forces the reader to recognize the primary need for unquestioning faith.

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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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