[Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Sat Apr 16 13:14:26 EDT 2016

Fabulous quote from Milosz!  Thank you, Matt.  Reminds us what it means really to be serious about criticism.

Richard Strier
Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus
Editor, Modern Philology
Department of English
University of Chicago
1115 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu] on behalf of Matthew Jordan [matthewjorda at gmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, April 16, 2016 11:53 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] finding the bad in what you find good

Dear All

May I say, first, how much I have been enjoying this thread. Perhaps there is something to be said for risking giving offence.

Perhaps platitudinously, I suspect there is no banishing questions of value from literary study - indeed, perhaps, from the Humanities - even if, or especially because, different views are not susceptible of resolution.

More interestingly (I hope) I am reading Milosz' utterly engrossing The Captive Mind, and just came across this passage:

Only the bourgeois persists in thinking that nothing results from these nuances of thought. The Party knows that much can come of them: there was a time when the Revolution was merely a nuance . . . The most neuralgic points of the doctrine are philosophy, literature, the history of art, and literary criticism; those are the points where man in his unfortunate complexity enters the equation. .  . . A deviation from the line in the evaluation of some work of art may become the leaven of a political upheaval." (pp. 213-14 in UK Penguin edition).



Sent from my iPhone

On 16 Apr 2016, at 16:56, Hugh M. RICHMOND <hmr at berkeley.edu<mailto:hmr at berkeley.edu>> wrote:

I agree with the three recent defenders of Sonnet 23: I find great critics are often wrong - Johnson most of all - but in interesting ways that draw attention to something worthwhile. In this case the attempt to impose Petrarchan metrics on English verse has elicited excellent validation of Sonnet 23. English verse originates  with the alliterative tradition which ignores Romance language patterns  Hence the same error made by critics like Tillyard who thought Wyatt was an incompetent poet. Iambics correspond closely with the conversational rhythms of English - hence preferred by Shakespeare, as intensifying authenticity? If a poem can be read meaningfully it is good, and irregularity can be meaningful. Bad verse should simply be ignored, not labored over. Our role is to enhance appreciation, not diminish it.

On Sat, Apr 16, 2016 at 8:27 AM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com<mailto:jamesrovira at gmail.com>> wrote:
I very much appreciate Carrol's comments, because that is how I have been feeling.

I would also invert the idea in his second paragraph to add that a heap of learning can't turn dung into gold. Erudition can kill appreciation of perfectly fine verse as well as elevate shoddy and careless verse into something it just is not. In either case, the scholar is more in love with his or her reading of the poem than the poem itself, and the two are still two different things.

But there's still that sticky activity of evaluation in itself: is there ever any value in saying this line or poem is good and this one is bad?

When I read a lot of this kind of criticism published between 30s and the 70s, sometimes I felt like the scholar was more interested in (usually) his own reading of the poem, and establishing his own credentials through his judgment of the poem. It's as if the greatness of the poems were somehow completely dependent upon the scholar's valuation, rather than the scholar recognizing the inherent merit of the poem and articulating just what that merit is.

I realize that both are going on at once, but at the same time, it's fair to say that if somebody doesn't recognize the greatness of Paradise Lost, they are lacking somehow, and that's not the fault of the poem.  They don't have to like it, but they should acknowledge its many merits.

So I think we should start out with our immediate reading of the poem: when we read the poem, does this line sound awkward? Does the awkwardness itself convey meaning; e.g., Elton John stumbling over some of the words in "Your Song" when the songwriter is trying to describe the difficulty of the writing process, and how that stumbling conveys the depth of feeling that the songwriter has for the woman he loves. It's like having a perfectly iambic poem with one line containing the word "overflowing" that has eleven syllables.

So no one's demanding perfect regularity, just that the irregularity means something or adds to the poem.

And this is where the clever critic comes in: anything can be given meaning with enough work. And at that point we need only invoke Milton's obvious genius to justify any form of critical cleverness.

And then there's that word "bad" itself: do we mean bad in relationship to all of Milton's poetry? Do we mean bad in relationship every sonnet ever written? Is this Edward Bulwer-Lytton bad, or just bad relative to Milton? It can be a perfectly fine poem, just not as good as other poems Milton has written. Are we willing to admit that Milton can possibly be something less than an absolute genius in any line of his poetry? Isn't is it absolutely ridiculous to think he can't, or that if he ever was, he is so beyond us that we are not capable of noticing?

I learn more from these discussions in the way that people defend and present their positions than in any of their conclusions. All informed positions are therefore useful. It's just unfortunate that the ones that don't acknowledge fault happen to be wrong in this case.


Jim R

> On Apr 16, 2016, at 9:00 AM, Carrol Cox <cbcox at ilstu.edu<mailto:cbcox at ilstu.edu>> wrote:
> When the discussion turns to either "X is good" or "X is bad" I tend to
> return in my memory to the "Polemical Introduction" of Northrop Frye's
> _Anatomy of Criticism_. "Evaluation" is simply not a very interesting
> critical mode. Moreover, no one ever bothers to prove that some piece of
> newspaper verse is "bad"; silence is the mode for negative criticism. Check
> out Twain's "Sweet Singer of Michigan"; do you really want to spend time
> "proving" that she was as bad as Twain believed she was? "Who breaks a
> butterfly upon a wheel?"

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