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Introduction to Paradise Lost
- by Ian Johnston -

Some Final Observations

Before winding up this rapid (and overlong) introduction to Milton's great poem, I would like to mention two interpretative possibilities which seem to me inadequate.

First, I do not think we can ascribe any conscious ironic intention to Milton, that is, a desire openly to reveal the emotional and logical inadequacies of orthodox Protestant Christian doctrine. A sense of the inadequacy may indeed be what many readers take from the poem (and, as I have been arguing, Milton's presentation of the story seems to invite such a reaction), but I have little doubt that such an ironic disparagement of Christian doctrine goes against the conscious intentions of the poem (and the desires of the narrator).

Second, I have little sympathy with the interpretation (advanced most notably by Stanley Fish in Surprised by Sin) that such an ironic deflation of Christian doctrine is a deliberate tactic employed by Milton to remind us that we are all fallen creatures (like Adam and Eve) and that, in reacting so favorably to Satan and Adam and Eve we are simply demonstrating that we are like them, too susceptible to earthly delights. Hence, the poem is designed to trap the reader into a recognition of his or her own fallen nature. This is a sophisticated attempt to establish that Milton is successful in justifying God's ways to human beings by showing us our fallen nature. But the logic of this interpretative argument is very suspect, since it seems to amount to saying that defects in the poem (like incomprehensible imagery or violations of logic or repellent divine characters) are intentional reminders of the imperfections of all things human, that Milton intentionally writes bad poetry in many places in order to remind us of the lack of perfection in human understanding. It strikes me that if Milton had wanted to acquaint us with the power and glory of God beyond human understanding, he would not have brought the characters and the issues down into the human realm so insistently. This interpretative possibility resolves the problems of the poem by removing or ignoring its most obvious and intriguing characteristics.

From everything we know about Milton personally (not that this is prescriptive), he was the last person to accept justice as a mystery. He spent his life bringing all religious and political issues before the bar of rational fairness and was untiring in his demands for justice against unfair authority. This part of his personality in this poem (I have been arguing) is in conflict with his desire for an understanding of Protestant doctrine as embodied in the great Biblical story. If he is unable finally to reconcile the two, to justify the story as he would like to, he has left behind, as Empson insists, a fascinating study of a divided soul. The power of the poem resides, more than anything else, in that.

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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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