[Milton-L] Why oh Why

Carol Barton cbartonphd1 at verizon.net
Wed Feb 20 14:25:32 EST 2008

Larry Gorman asks, "Do we read Paradise Lost because the strenuousness of 
the effort makes
us a better person or do we read it because something within the text
gives us access to joy?"

Again, I was not referring specifically or solely to _Paradise Lost_, but to 
the entire Miltonic canon -- and as to the results of reading it, my answer 
would be "both." I have never climbed Everest, but after a climb of the 432 
ancient (and slippery) stone steps up a narrow passageway to the top of Il 
Duomo in Firenze, I can say that the getting there took a good deal of 
effort, but oh, the view from that circular ledge! The experience of reading 
Milton (or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or any early modern author) for the 
first time may be similar: only after one has accomplished it can he or she 
see what was gained along the way, and experience the full joy of that 

Milton does something unforgivable, in the context of today's classroom: he 
expands the mind, and makes the reader *think.* To take PL as one example, 
one does not (indeed, is not even *supposed to*) recognize how he or she is 
being entrapped by the text into drawing the same wrong conclusions that its 
characters do--that Satan is heroic, Adam chivalrous, Eve so seductive that 
her poor mate is incapable of rational thought in her presence, and God a 
manipulative tyrant. It is only through the process of rethinking and 
rediscovery that we engage in the reversion that Stanley Fish so 
perceptively described in _Surprised by Sin_, and realize that we've been 
"had." That's more work than many of today's readers want to do--but the 
benefits of the effort are inestimable, and if you take nothing else away 
from careful study of _Paradise Lost_, you leave it never able to read 
anything else in the old naive way again.

Is that why we read _Paradise Lost_ the first time? Probably not. The answer 
to that one is "because some dumb English teacher made us do it." But the 
second, or the hundredth? You betcha.

Best to all,

Carol Barton 

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