[Milton-L] Eve's curls - Or PL as Epic Poem (Fiction)

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Sat Sep 12 20:09:56 EDT 2009

The posts of Campbell, Skulsky, Schultz, and Maxwell are among the more
illuminating comments on the Separation scene that I have seen (and
despite differences among them on a number of points, they seem to me to
cluster together on the essentials. They all avoid the moralism which so
clogged so much 20th-c criticism of the poem.

Here I want to comment on just one passage from Gardner Campbell's  on
Sunday, Sept. 6. He wrote:

"That said, it should be noted that many fine critics (Blake, Waldock,
Bloom, etc.) have argued that Milton has to have Adam and Eve fall
through weakness of will, as free will in a Paradise untainted by sin
seems to them to have no plausible way of consenting to disobedience."

The problem arises, it seems, because Paradise Lost is looked at as a
philosophical or ethical or religious document, to be read and judged
according to its consonance with reality, rather than as a poem, an
epic, that is a made thing or a fiction. In the Iliad Athena appears
invisibly behind Achilles and grasps him by the hair, ordering him not
to kill Agamemnon. No critic, so far as I know, has argued that this
conflicts with reality.

Does PL offer a valid ontological claim about the Universe? No. It
doesn't; it can't, and it is wrong to demand that of it. But in the
_poem_ (a) free will exists, as a given and (b) A&E fall.  Hence in the
poem The Fall and Free Will are compatible for the same reason it is
possible for Athena to grasp Achilles by the hair in the Iliad without
anyone seeing her do it.

This does _not_ mean that one _use_ of the poem is, precisely, to
provoke the sort of discussions that Gardner refers to, or the kind of
discussions that Carol Barton's ethical & psychological  accounts can
evoke. Nor does it mean that no critic should attempt to discover, in
the poem's terms, an explanation of the compatibility of free will and
fall. It does mean that none of those discussions can exhaust the
interest of any part of the poem; and it certainly means that it is
profoundly false to judge the poem's success as an epic by its success
or lack of success as a theodicy. Many of course would claim that any
theodicy fails by definition. It is a false enterprise. But many varied
(even obnoxious) views have energized tremendously rich poems, novels,
plays, etc., and we do not, actually, judge even philosophical works by
their "truth." (Platon's Republic, regarded strictly as a statement
about the world is not only false but vicious - but it is still one of
the riches and most wonderful documents produced by any writer.)

Marx & Engels seldom had much to say about socialism, honoring Marx's
youthful axiom that it was not his thing to write recipes for the
cookshops of the future. But in Anti-Duhring, dealing with a man who
expounded grandly on the precise details of a future state, Engels did
devote a few pages to the topic, listing some of the attributes of a
desirable world to live in. One of them was "books to argue about."  
That is, arguing in and of itself is a great human pleasure, and that PL
grandly supplies.


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