[Milton-L] Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night...

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Fri Dec 26 10:15:13 EST 2008


The statement that any author is "the greatest who has ever lived" implies a
comparison between that author and all others.  Criticism makes comparisons
all the time, though, and for many different purposes.

The problem is that people have quit writing about "greatness" in literature
(using that language) for about three to four decades now.  Part of the
problem is that reading evaluations of one author's greatness in
relationship to other authors begins to sound more like a testimony to the
critic's greatness than a meaningful evaluation of any literature.  These
readings sound pointless and overbearing after awhile.  Furthermore,
criteria for greatness usually include specific value judgments that can no
longer be assumed to be shared even among all people writing criticism in
English.

Longinus has been democratized into reader response theory because the
concept of the "sublime" came to be associated negatively with elitism.
But, elitism seems to be back in these days, so who knows?

If we jettison value judgments and simply evaluate a work on the basis of
its formal merits, we run into other problems.  It's very difficult to make
comparisons among authors engaged in different tasks.  Wordsworth's Prelude
could be compared to PL, and is strongly indebted to it, but is completely
focused upon a single subjectivity.  It's highly personal so written
following different conventions.  Blake's Jerusalem could be compared too,
and is indebted as well, but is a mythological poem representing
psychological forces rather than an epic poem mythologizing religious
figures.

And these are just comparisons among authors engaged in similar tasks.
Relatively few specific criteria apply to a comparison between Milton and
Shakespeare: one is writing plays, the other epic poems.  Milton's attempts
at drama are few in number.  They're very good, but not as good as
Shakespeare in my opinion, certainly not as entertaining and meaningful in
so many different ways.  Furthermore, Shakespeare never attempted an epic
poem to my knowledge.  Since these two authors spent their time writing very
different types of works, how do you compare them?  A comparison between
Joyce's Ulysses and PL seems right too -- but how do you compare a novel to
an epic poem?  Even if the novel's a novelization of the grandfather (or
grandmother?) of epic poems, and both PL and Ulysses are indebted to the
same works?

I think it may be more useful to make narrower comparisons: who wrote the
greatest sonnets?  But I think we'd still have problems.  Even when Collins
and cummings wrote rather silly sonnets, they're brilliantly silly sonnets.
Even the sonnet keeps being reinvented and reused for different purposes, so
that an evaluation of the greatness of any sonnet would have to evaluate the
purposes to which different sonnets are put -- again, requiring value
judgments that we can't agree upon any more (If we ever did to begin with).


So a statement that Milton was the greatest author who ever lived sounds
these days more like an emotional expression on the part of the person
speaking rather than a careful evaluation of literature.

What's more interesting to me are the ways we may still be applying a
concept of "greatness" to literature but just calling it something else.

Jim R
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