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

Tony Demarest tonydemarest at hotmail.com
Wed Apr 15 15:37:56 EDT 2009

Not "long enough," but rather so much longer than the question deserved as it was twisted and molded to fit individual preferences. Surely a more important and relevant query would be what constitutes great literature- we are all guilty of taking tradition's identification of Shakespeare's or Milton's "greatness" without possibly pondering over many years the veracity of this claim- but we are not, because the authors and their works far outstrip those of contemporaries and of those who are not. We are going through Middle States next year, and needless to say, administration, deans, faculty are saying things absurd, such as "all academic activities are ultimately quantifiable." How grotesque and finally stupid the idea is- like this discussion thread. Attempted comparisons between Milton and Steele are simply silly and without merit- equally so with Milton and Shakespeare. The reality of so many variables- literary, social, economic, etc., etc., etc. preclude any valuable comparison. But you are right- this has gone on so intolerably long that I must resort to Cicero- "O tempora, o mores."

> To: milton-l at lists.richmond.edu
> From: Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu
> Date: Wed, 15 Apr 2009 15:20:52 -0400
> Subject: [Milton-L] Is Paradise Lost the greatest work?
> 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
> "meaningless"?
> 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
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