[Milton-L] Is Paradise Lost

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Thu Apr 16 13:30:26 EDT 2009

Milton and Shakespeare are heirs to the same ars rhetorica-dpminated
literary culture, and the same vast treasury of Renaissance learning in
law, theology, warfare, sciences, and pseudosciences. Anybody who has
done research on allusions to these domains in the Shakespearean canon
will be inoculated against the facile assumption that the university
man's  powers in any of these domains were ipso facto superior to this
particular graduate of a grammar school. It is a commonplace of
Renaissance literary criticism (due to a remark in Aristotle's Poetics)
that tragedy is epic reduced to the latter's dialogic elements; and it
was also obvious to anyone who had read Seneca, much less a Greek drama,
that plays are expected to be full of out-and-out poetry, in the full
formal sense —  by generic obligation and not by accident. There is no
important generic obstacle to a value comparison between the two

The intellectual and encyclopedic richness of Milton's poems is
staggering; he addresses issues of theodicy, metaphysics, natural
science, free will, the status of morals at a crucially brave depth of
involvement - like Spenser, Herbert, Donne, and Shakespeare. Milton also
creates indelibly vivid characters of universal import; his Satan, Adam,
Eve, God, Christ Samson, Dalila, Manoa are never to be underestimated
for unexpected nuance and depth. And often enough Milton passes
triumphantly the central test of literary power and mastery for the ars
rhetorica-shaped enterprise that he shares with Spenser, Herbert, Donne,
and Shakespeare: he reaches out and presses our buttons not only for
pity and fear but for a wide range of other emotions too, including the
satire humor (though not vis comica) that sometimes emerges even in PL
(see the Fool's Paradise sequence and Adam's dialogue with God on the
need for a mate). But in all these respects (with the exception of
focused classical allusion), the Shakespearean literary canon is
measurably more complex, and measurably richer than the Miltonic.

Milton's poetic corpus shows full mastery of all of the three levels of
style distinguished in the dominant rhetorical tradition. But so does
Shakespeare's —  even to the point of shrewd and totally knowing
parody of the grand style (see "The rugged Pyrrhus" and countless other
examples); and the range of stylistic variation in the Shakespearean
canon (including at leasat one brilliant success in the so-called
Metaphysical style) is staggering, beyond anything in Milton. But the
major comedies and tragedies not only address the familiar range of
ultimate concerns (about free will or the lack of it, personal identity,
the status and survival of moral principles, the limits of political
action, the limits of human communication) at a level more nuanced and
complex than anything in Milton (partly because as a popular dramatist
Shakespeare is immersed in the actual nuts and bolts of an actual
society), but they do so with the momentum and compactness forced on a
supreme man of the theater by the discipline of his daily craft. 

I love Milton. I have written about him with pleasure and total
devotion and (I hope) some understanding beyond the superficial. And (as
I argue above) I find nothing wrong in principle with literary axiology
(value judgment of all sorts), and even with invidious comparisons
across genres; as a realist about value, I find such comparisons always
legitimate in principle though obviously very difficult, sometimes to
the point of impossiblity, in practice. But it seems to me inescapably
clear (on the grounds I have mentioned as well as many others) that it
is Shakespeare and not Milton who belongs to the select company that
includes Homer and Dante and Cervantes and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and
Beckett and a few other luminaries of many nations. It is Shakespeare
and not my beloved Milton who has created a world, in all its blooming,
buzzing, fertile, hilarious, and forlorn confusion. I strongly suspect
that Milton himself would not disagree.

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