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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Some Initial Interpretative Considerations: Will and Imagination

How is one to negotiate all these claims and counter-claims? Is it possible to get some initially useful orientation on this poem? Well, here are a few points to think about:

So far as Milton's style is concerned, it seems fair to claim that some parts of the poem are better than others. A good deal of Paradise Lost (most of the poem, in fact) is extremely difficult to read with any enjoyment. The style is just too obtuse, strained, pedantic, Latinate, and monotonous. Most student readers firmly endorse Dr. Johnson's comment that no one ever wished this poem longer than it is (some defenders are quick to reply that the reason for that is that the poem is perfect). On the other hand, there are some passages which deservedly rank among the finest dramatic utterances in all English poetry, unmatched for power and imaginative delight.

I would like to propose for your consideration the idea that those moments where the poetry is most alive, most vital and moving, are the most obvious places where the imagination of the writer is most fully engaged. Here he is expressing his deepest sense of his art. In those passages which register as much more laboured and pedestrian, his imagination is not at work (or not to the same extent) and he is writing from his will, with a conscious intentionality.

Let me expand on this idea for a moment. All writers have will and conscious intentions. These often frame the organization and planning of a work (the same is true for all artists, of course). And many artists remain consciously aware and in control of what they are doing throughout the execution of the work. But there are moments in the great artists when something takes over from the will; an imaginative power seizes control of the medium and shapes the work in accordance with no clear plan which the author originally and consciously set down. We call this process artistic inspiration. It has always been a well attested phenomenon, and some of you may have experienced it yourselves (perhaps even in the course of writing an essay for this course).

Now, inspiration of the sort I am talking about is under no conscious control. It is not something that can be summoned up or turned on and off like a tap. Often it arrives unexpectedly and departs just as unexpectedly. And what triggers it is unknown. Artists have for a long time liked to experiment with various experiences or substances which, in their view, might foster inspiration (i.e., bring it under human control), but so far no one has found any formula which will guarantee that.

It is also true that inspiration of this sort does not last. Most of an artist's life and perhaps even most of his work is uninspired. It is routine work (often of a very high technical calibre) carried out with a conscious sense of intention and a deliberate use of particular skills. An artist who sets out on a work hopes, of course, that inspiration will strike (as you do, no doubt, in writing an essay). But whether inspiration comes or not, the work must go on. And so it is not unusual to find in the work of any great artist a considerable range in the quality, from uninspired routinely skilful use of existing conventions to uniquely powerful and moving works of imagination. Nor is it uncommon within a single long work to recognize clearly moments when an interesting but recognizably normal style suddenly transforms itself into something much more exciting, imaginatively alive, and profound. If you are looking for evidence of such variety, you need look no further than Shakespeare's sonnets. Some of these are of very poor quality indeed (although they demonstrate a formal skill in sonnet writing); others (the minority) are among the finest poems ever written. The poet is the same; often the subject matter is the same. But it is not difficult to tell which works have been shaped by the imagination working at full potential and which ones have been shaped by the will (no pun intended).

The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins coined the term Parnassian to describe a writer's normal uninspired style in order to distinguish that from the moments when the style becomes transformed by an imaginative power and excitement. Hopkins makes the interesting point that one can recognize a Parnassian style when one reads something which one can easily imitate or parody. A truly imaginative style, however, is unique and beyond parody. One can parody a great deal of Elizabethan sonnet writing, for example, but one cannot parody King Lear with any accuracy.

Hopkins's distinction is a useful analytical method of dealing with all writers of longer works, many (perhaps most) of which consist of a mixture of Parnassian writing and moments of inspiration. A Parnassian style is shaped by the writer's conscious use of his or her skill and may set a high level or may be quite laboured. A writer like, say, Melville in Moby Dick or Wordsworth in the Prelude writes consciously in a style which is often very pedestrian, even confused and awkward much of the time (a characteristic which makes them very easy to parody). We put up with this uninspired stuff in order to find within it the extraordinary moments when the imagination of the writer suddenly takes wing (as in the birth of the whales or the journey over the Alps). Other writers (like, say, Alexander Pope and Jane Austen) set a normal Parnassian style which is highly skilful and interesting (and much more difficult to parody). Few writers of long works, however, can establish and maintain an sense of intense imaginative excitement from start to finish (Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights or Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano might be examples of exceptions to this observation).

I shall not belabour this point further, since I think it is obvious enough (for example, from our experience of being or witnessing performing artists). I do want to make the final point here, however, that the major task of being an artist is preparing oneself for those moments of inspiration. To be a writer is to spend most of one's time writing uninspired prose or poetry, to practice the craft, even though none of it may be worth removing from one's desk drawer. The purpose of such writing is to hone the technical skill so that when inspiration comes, if it ever does, the artist will be ready. As Ezra Pound once observed, a writer might spend an entire life practising for that one moment when inspiration comes. Without the practice, the skill necessary to use that moment of inspiration to create something truly great will not be available. If Melville had not set out to write Moby Dick and persevered in the task when he was not inspired, we would lack some of the greatest prose ever developed in a novel.

Anyway, I would like to apply this distinction to Milton's poem and propose that where the poetry is really fine Milton's imagination is most fully engaged, his poetical spirit is most fully alive; where, by contrast, the style is boring and flat, Milton's will is doing the work. If we admit this distinction, then we have to admit, I think, that Milton's Parnassian style is really difficult to wade through, for all the reasons the critics hostile to his poem repeatedly cite (and it invites parody, the sure sign of a routine Parnassian text).

And I would like to propose the following as a guide to sorting out some of the complexities of the poem: some of the major difficulties we have in interpreting Paradise Lost stem from the fact that Milton's imagination is working against his will; that is, he has conscious intentions about what he wants the poem to do, but his imagination is instinctively rebelling against this intention. If the result is a certain confusion, it is a fascinating confusion well worth our attention. This, if you like, is the central idea behind these lectures (which present my view of this poem).

This (as I shall make clear repeatedly) is by no means an original view of the poem--it has been presented many times. I like it because it takes us away from trying to pass a comprehensive judgment on the entire poem (good or bad) and invites us to see in the shifting quality of the work an intense drama going on within the spirit of the poet himself (as that manifests itself in the text). Since the contrast in quality is such a marked feature of the poem, it seems to me that's a useful place to seek an entry into what is going on.

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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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