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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -


Some Narrative Considerations

Before exploring that contrast in detail, however, I want to call attention to some of the problems associated with Milton's presentation of the narrative. For Paradise Lost is, before anything else, a dramatic story in which a cast of characters enacts a dramatic conflict with a beginning, middle, and end. Whatever we have to say about the poem must take this narrative into account.

Now, Milton sets out clearly as his deliberate purpose in this poem the task of justifying the ways of God to man. What does this mean? Well, the key term here is justify. That means that Milton is declaring in the opening lines his intent to account for, to provide adequate ground for, in short, to render intelligible the ways of God by exploring an old and odd story. If we take that statement of intention seriously (and there's no sense of an ironic purpose at work in the statement), then the narrator of the poem would seem to be indicating that we should emerge from the poem (if it is successful) with a finer acceptance of God's ways.

Prima facie, there are two obvious ways in which one might seek to justify a set of events: first, one might seek to provide a rational justification, that is, to show that the actions of a particular character are rationally intelligible in terms of reasonable purposes and means, so that, even if we have trouble agreeing with all of the actions, we can see them as a reasonable way to proceed. Second, one might seek to provide an emotional justification, that is, a sense of aesthetic satisfaction in a story. There might be little direct rationality here, but the artistic structure of the story might provide a sense of emotional closure and acceptance (as, for example, at the end of a tragedy like Oedipus the King, which cannot be explained as a reasonable outcome but which makes sense emotionally). There is, if you like, a rational justification and an emotional justification (these are not mutually exclusive of course, but either one will serve).

I wish to argue that Milton fails on both counts. This poem provides neither a rational justification for story of the fall of humanity which might include a reasonable interpretation of God's behaviour or plan nor an aesthetically pleasing account of why God behaves the way he does. On both counts God emerges as quite unacceptable, in spite of the narrator's obvious desire to make Him acceptable. As I have mentioned already, the tension between this deliberate intention and the failure of the poetry to deliver that intention is a source of major interest in the poem. In fact, following Empson, I would like to argue that it is precisely the failure of this poem to deliver on its intentions which makes it still (in spite of the obvious labour it requires to get through) so exciting to read.

I would like to deal with these two methods of justification separately, looking first at how Milton's treatment of the story deals with rational questions we might want to raise and then later at how his treatment of the characters in the story makes any aesthetic justification for God's ways impossible.


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"Lecture on Milton's Paradise Lost"

Author: Ian Johnston

Site: johnstonia

Introduction

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

Satan

God

Adam and Eve

Some Final Observations

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