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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

A Digression: The Problem of "Philosophical" Poetry

I want to really stress this point. In listening to or reading about defenses of this poem by students who are Christians, I often get the feeling that any criticism of Milton's orthodoxy or his successful justification of God must be an attack on their religious beliefs. Thus, the discussion of the poem can become arguments about the rationality or viability of Christianity in general. It should be clear to you by now that that is quite beside the point. Our concern here is Milton's vision of God in Paradise Lost, not the presentation of God in Protestant Christianity. It may well be the case (and I hope it will for some of you be the case) that Milton's treatment of this story piques your curiosity to read further into some of the questions his text raises, but such an exploration beyond the poem in the history of ideas or the philosophical adequacy of Christian doctrine is not our concern here.

Moreover, this presentation of the story is a poem, not a philosophical work. If we choose to ignore the poetic qualities, we can, I suppose, extract a "doctrine" which provides a justification acceptable to some. But we are dealing here with characters in conflict, people who speak to each other (and thus to us), who act from particular motives, and who often suffer harsh consequences. What matters in the evaluation of this poem is the response to the poetry, not the conversion of the poem into something that might pass muster as a reasonable defense of Christianity. Christianity is not on trial in discussion of Milton's poem, but Milton's characters are. To carry out this task we have to attend to the poetry.

The issue of interpreting poetry which presents ideas or which structures itself around what looks like a philosophical argument is important to understand. We can easily be seduced into spending all our time discussing the logical structure of the argument or in seeking to construct prose summaries of it. Now, this is a legitimate process in helping us to understand the content of the poem, but it is no substitute for proper interpretation. Poems are not philosophical arguments, and if we insist on treating them as if that is all they are, then we miss the point of the poetry. What is at stake here is the emotional content of the argument: how does the poem present an emotional response to the argumentative position being staked out? If we don't attend to the poetry, then we are left wondering why someone like Milton didn't just write a prose tract defending his position.

In any case, in many "philosophical" poems, the philosophical content is very thin. No one would, for example, put Dante's Divine Comedy or Wordsworth's Prelude or Paradise Lost in any course in philosophy. Yes, they present ideas. But the ideas are not presented in a particularly complex or interesting philosophical manner. The treatment of them is, from a philosophical point of view, cursory. On the other hand, these works belong in any list of significant poems, because they take the reader so movingly through the emotional wrestling with and discovery of ideas (as revealed in the language).

What I'm trying to stress here is this point: no poem presenting ideas can be adequately interpreted simply by summarizing its philosophical position. As an interpreter, one needs to attend to how the language presents and plays with the ideas, to gather a sense of the emotional tensions within the speaker's or narrator's consciousness. That will be the poetic centre of the work.

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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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