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Thursday, 8 December 2011

John Milton: marrying the epic with the sacred


John Milton chose to write a verse epic. His title, Paradise Lost, tells you something significant about the arc it is going to follow. He doesn't call his poem Felix Culpa: or, the Fortunate Fall. He doesn't (as Dryden, in his cleaned-up opera version of the poem was to do) call it The State of Innocence. Nor does he reach for a title inviting a neat moral division like Lucy Hutchinson's contemporary offering on the same subject, Order and Disorder. He tells us that this is a story about loss, basic and profound. Redemption gets no stress. Structurally his poem claims as close a relationship with the fall of Troy as ever it does with the fall of man.
He had no difficulty in principle with marrying the epic genre with a sacred subject. Christian epic existed as a form in European letters. In England Edmund Spenser had pioneered it, and Milton admired Spenser. Nor, in principle or practice, had he a problem with the tragic overtones of his choice. In the list of epic predecessors he had made in his youth he had finished up his predictable roll-call of Homer, Virgil and Tasso with a fourth "brief model": the Book of Job, a biblical fable in which God allows Satan to torment a just man. Read more...

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