[Milton-L] Milton's use of sublime in Paradise Lost

tuck at mail.utexas.edu tuck at mail.utexas.edu
Fri Nov 19 12:03:26 EST 2004


Colin Burrow's essay "Combative criticism: Johnson, Milton,and classical
literary criticism" in _The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 3: 
The Renaissance_  (Cambridge, 1999) contains the statement, "Satan is just such
a sublime surrogate artist in his relations with Sin and Death" (497). I believe
that's the sentence you're paraphrasing.  

Burrow's observation does not have anything directly to do with Milton's _use_
of the sublime.  Instead Burrow compares Satan's generation of Sin and Death
with a celebrated effect of the literary sublime described by Longinus:  true
sublimity in verse makes itself known in the powerful (if irrational) feeling
that we ourselves have somehow authored the things that astonish us.

In fact, according to orthodox literary history, the sublime simply was not
there to be used when Milton wrote _Paradise Lost_.  The article on the sublime
in _The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics_, for instance, would lead
you to believe that Milton just missed the boat.  The aesthetic category we
call the sublime was spawned, the story goes, by discussion of _On the Sublime_
in the popular translation of 1674--the year Milton died.  Leslie E. Moore's
book _Beautiful Sublime:  The Making of Paradise Lost, 1701-1734_ (Stanford,
1990) is an excellent source for understanding early eighteenth century English
critics' development of the sublime in connection with _Paradise Lost_.  Moore
is concerned with Addison, Dennis, Richardson, and others as "creators of [the
sublime] Milton" (5).  Although she does not address Milton's own poetics
directly, Moore expresses doubt that the eighteenth century sublime was "even
remotely close to the 'sublime art' envisioned in Milton's _Of Education_"

A different view of Milton's relationship to the sublime has begun to emerge,
however, as Burrow indicates on the previous page of the same essay:  "Recent
critics have detected signs that Milton anticipated the interests of Addison,
Burke, and Dennis by writing with Longinus's theories in mind" (496). 
Specifically, Burrow cites Annabel Patterson, _Reading Between the Lines_
(London, 1993), pp. 256-72, who as far as I know is the first to claim that
Milton invented the modern sublime.  I make the same claim in my dissertation,
but argue that Milton's poetics of the sublime, though perhaps influenced by
_Peri Hypsous_, owe much more to own his radical development of Renaissance
theories of wonder and the marvelous.  Boileau himself reflexively drew on
existing theory of the marvelous to conceptualize Longinus's topic, which he
describes in his title as _le traite du Sublime ou du mervelleux_; but it is
Milton's epic that bridges the worlds of Renaissance wonder and the eighteenth
century sublime.

To sum up, I think it's an exciting and timely subject matter, and well worth
attempting to map out; but if you want to say that Milton was _using_ the
sublime (and I think he was) you've got your work cut out for you.



Matthew Tucker, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English
University of Texas at Austin

Quoting Anna Santiago <natsantiago at hotmail.com>:

> Satan is said to be a sublime surrogate artists in his relations with Sin 
> and Death. I found this in the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. 
> Could any of you explicate on this subject matter?  Thanks,
> Anna
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