[Milton-L] Frank Kermode on Milton

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Sun Aug 22 14:14:00 EDT 2010

Frank Kermode, who died this past week at the age of 90, wrote a long
and fascinatng exxay on Paradise Lost in 1960 which was strangely
ignored by later critics. Aa bit later on Iwill return t this fact and
argue that, as superb as the essay was, critical indifference to it was,
in its way, quite rational. And I am going to predict that the same fate
awaits the  Richard Strier's thesis on PL as a celebration of the
earthly paradise.

Keremode's thesis was that PL is a poem about death! (This is all from a
50-year memory: my eyesight or lack of it  prevents me from checking the
text.) And near the end of the essay he quotes a poem by Robert Graves,
the fist of which, as I recall, was that after the speaker found love,
death became terrible. Let us hypothetically identify a harmonious love
affair and the earthly paradise. Then Kermode's interpretation of PL and
Graves's poem both are versions of  richard's thesis of PL as
envisioning the earthly paradise, for death is terrible only as the loss
of that which is of great value. Kermode's essay, that is,
incvorporatesd  richard's thesis, but uses it as a way station to his
claim that the poem is about death.

(This of course a very crude summary of both interpretations. Kermode's
essay may be found in a collection edited by him, The Living Milton,

I found Kermode's essay quite persuasive when I read it and was
surprised when in my extensive reading in criticism of PL, 1960-1980, I
found no references at all to it. But here, I believe, was the rub. As
persuasive as his construal of the poem was, accepting did not, really,
change one's reading of the poem. (Conttrast: I think Achilles'
concrete, lived, knowledge of his own certain death at Troy consistently
energizes one's reading of the poem.) Moreover, there was nothing
another critic  could _do_ with it! Far from suggesting new lines of
inquiry, it was in fact a dead end. One could accept it, see it as
suspeerior to manyother readigns, recognize particular passages in PL
it  illuminated -- but that was _all_ one could do with it. And as I
say, in a way Kermode's interpretation embodied the interpretation  
Strier gives, makes sense only in the context of the awefulness of
losing the paradise embodied in the poem.

And now I'm suggesting that Richard's interpretation will meet
essentially the same fate. It will be read with nods of approval -- and
then forgotten. There is nothing, really, that critics can do with it.


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