[Milton-L] Is Paradise Lost

jsavoie at siue.edu jsavoie at siue.edu
Thu Apr 16 13:39:26 EDT 2009

Milton beneath Beckett???  Say it aint so!

John Savoie

Quoting Harold Skulsky <hskulsky at smith.edu>:

> 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
> authors.
> 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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