[Milton-L] Fetishizing Greatness, was Re: Is Paradise Lost
cbcox at ilstu.edu
Thu Apr 23 11:01:13 EDT 2009
> > jonnyangel wrote: Well, if that¹s the case then Milton was the greatest playwright of all time.
Are you serious, clowningn, or a clown by nature? Carrol
It was a joke. It was a response to whoever said that "poetry" in the
early modern era was defined as drama *and* verse. Although this was
true (going back to the Greeks), it would be like saying that a novel or
a film is "poetry" now.
I would use "poem" that way. (I think in ordinary usage "poetry" and
"poem" differ somewhat.) A poem or a fiction is a "made thing," a verbal
artifact. (I wouldn't use it for movies.) I would also use it for many
texts that the Renaissance would have called "history." Tillyard in his
book on the "English Epic" included Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Gould's
_The Structure of Evolutionary Theory_ is a beautiful artifact as well
as a science text, and I don't see why "poem" could not, in some
contexts, include that. "Work of literature" is awkward, and the best
single word for it is "poem." There's a tragic rhythm in Wittgenstein's
Tractatus, and an epic sweep to Rusell's _Human Knowledge_.
And consider John Adams on Cicero (as channeled by Ezra Pound):
Van Myden _editio terza_ design of the book is
of technical terms
as of Hawkins' Pleas of the Crown. Bracton,
Britten, Fleta on Glanville, must dig with my fingers
as nobody witll lend me or sell me a pick axe.
Exercises my lungs, revives my spirits opens my pores
reading Tully on Cataline quickens my circulation
For Adams, it seems, even Cicero's polemical prose meets your 19th-c
definition of poetry as that which tightens the sphinbcter muscle.
(Incidentally - read the Cantos often enough long enough to get a feel
for the metric and those last two lines reveal themselves as a metrical
triumph equal to anything in Shakespeare or Milton.)
All of which bbrings up another problem with yatter about "The
Greatest" or "The Second Greatest" etc. How good a poem would PL be if
it were the only poem in English? How does Sir Toby put it, "Shall there
be no more cakes and aile?" Does PL have the most powerful ('greatest')
opening lines in English; I would argue for Rochester:
Much wine had passed, with grave discourse,
Of who fucks who, and who does worse.
What more powerful an ending to any poem than the last sentence of _The
Bostonians_? Any given poem is "great" only because it comes to us in
this rich context of other works.
And I can't end a post on "greatness" without quoting the following:
"Do you know anything of my cousin's captain?" said Edmund; "Captain
Marshall? You have a large acquaintance in the navy, I conclude?"
"Among admirals, large enough; but," with an air of grandeur, "we know
very little of the inferior ranks. Post-captains may be very good sort
of men, but they do not belong to _us_. Of various admirals I could
tell you a great deal: of them and their flags, and the gradation of
their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But, in general, I can
assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used.
Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of
admirals. Of _Rears_ and _Vices_ I saw enough. Now do not be
suspecting me of a pun, I entreat."
Edmund again felt grave, and only replied, "It is a noble profession."
(_Mansfield Park_, Ch. 6)
How could one's pores not be opened, one's circulation quickened, to
encounter the rears and vices of the English Navy presented with such a
My point is that obsession with greatness (absolute or relative)
deprives us of what is surely one of the great joys of literature,
finding connections. "The ant's a centaur in his dragon world" (Canto
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