[Milton-L] Is Paradise Lost the greatest work?

Gregory Machacek Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
Wed Apr 15 15:20:52 EDT 2009

Alan Rudrum asked:  Is Paradise Lost the greatest single work of literature
in the English language?  (He asked it across the subject line and into the
message of his original post)

Most respondents (I cited some in my first reply) indicated that such
questions were "inane" or dismissed them as being the equivalent of arguing
whether Superman could beat the Hulk, or jocularly proposed that the next
MLA involve a March madness style tournament (I think I might enjoy such an
MLA more than most that I've attended).

Observing what struck me as a smug consensus that such questions are not
worthwhile (symptomatic, I think, of assumptions governing literary
criticism under its present dominant paradigm and of contemporary
sensibilities generally), I asked if Milton would share our own age's
reluctance to render literary judgments.

Jim Rovira replied that it might make sense to make comparisons between
Milton and Danielle Steele, but not between Milton and Shakespeare.  (It's
true that the original question about works has sometimes slipped into a
question of authors rather than of works and that everything has been
colored by johnny angel's disvaluing of Shakespeare).

When I asked how comparisons between Milton and Shakespeare are different
in kind from comparisons between Milton and Steele (carelessly slipping,
myself, into the author-author comparison), he replied

"I frankly can't believe I was asked this question?"

It's precisely the unbelivability of such questions (under the reigning
critical paradigm) that intrigues me.

Why can't we ask such questions?  Why do they seem "inane" or

And I would pair that with my other question.  Doesn't Milton ask us to
make such judgments?  (Moreover, isn't the content of Paradise Lost very
much concerned with characters having to make precisely such difficult
judgments?)  And if Milton does ask us to do so, and we decline, are we
missing something important in our experience of his epic?

Rushing to class.  Wish I had more time.  But this has grown long enough in
any case.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College

More information about the Milton-L mailing list