[Milton-L] Is Paradise Lost

Gregory Machacek Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
Wed Apr 15 08:44:34 EDT 2009

The list's consensus on Alan Rudrum's original question--"Is Paradise Lost
the single greatest work of literature in the English language?"--has been
to refuse to answer, and indeed in some cases to label the evaluative
enterprise itself as misguided.  I cite some of those refusals:

"I will say this thread is inane at best, boorish at worst. All this
pseudo-assessing of "greatness" just adds more wattle to Harold Bloom's
underchin and does nobody any good. The older a reader gets, the more open
to greatness and brilliance his/her mind becomes. For some reason, I
thought competition went out with Petrarch."

"Who in the world would bother trying to compare Beethoven and Chopin?  Or
who could imagine the world, absent either or these, not irretrievably

"Why the need to establish a hierarchy of the greatest? My love of poetry
and language was nurtured by by both Shakespeare and Milton (and Keats,
Chaucer and Pope, by the way); returning to either is a rebirth."

"It reminds me of arguments I used to have with my little brother about
whether Superman could beat the Hulk, or Spiderman, or Mighty Mouse,
whatever. Northrop Frye wrote somewhere, perhaps in the Anatomy, that we
all naturally make value judgments about which writers are greater than
others, but that this is not the proper business of literary criticism."

BUT, would Milton himself have shared our dismissiveness regarding literary
evaluation, even ranking?  Milton, who proclaimed that his epic would sing
the *better* fortitude of patience and poetic martyrdom that previous epic
had left unsung.  Who early expresses his intent to soar *above* th'Aonian
mount.  Who dared to be known to think Spenser a *better* teacher than
Scotus or Aquinas.

When we refuse Milton's invitation to rank his poem relative to others that
have and might be written, do we miss something important about the epic?
Do we refuse something Milton asks us to do?

We were not shy, recently, about evaluating Pullman, some even explicitly
ranking him below Rowling. If judgments are properly made on lower slopes,
at what altitude does Parnassus reach the plateau of the incomparably

Is the contemporary diffidence, or pusillanimity, regarding aesthetic
judgment itself historically bounded?  If Johnson could categorically state
that Paradise Lost is not the greatest of epic poems only because it is not
the first, is our reluctance to rank poems as much a post-Romantic legacy
as the "sentimental poetics" for which johnny angel is mocked for valuing
Paradise Lost?  As high-minded and non-judgmental as we pride our selves
for being when we refuse to rank, is that high-mindedness tied in with
contemporary sensibilities about which we might have less pride (every
child deserves a gold star!)

So, in answer to Alan Rudrum's question, I will say, yes.  I think Milton
set out to write the greatest poem in the English language.  I think he did
so.  And, I think that nothing in the later category of literature rivals

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College

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