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I am, however, of opinion, that no just Heroic Poem ever was or can be made, from whence one great Moral may be deduced. That which reigns in Milton, is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined: It is in short this, That Obedience to the Will of God makes Men happy, and that Disobedience makes them miserable. This is visibly the Moral of the principal Fable, which turns upon Adam and Eve, who continued in Paradise, while they kept the Command that was given them, and were driven out of it as soon as they transgressed. This is likewise the Moral of the principal episode, which shews us how an innumerable Multitude of Angels fell from their State of Bliss, and were cast into Hell upon their Disobedience.
Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator, 3 May 1712
He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thought or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them.... His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first.
Samuel Johnson, "Milton" in Lives of the Poets, 1779
Milton's chief ethical interest was freedom. He wanted to be free of his own appetites, and the appetites of others, especially tyranny. Repeatedly he says you can't have the second freedom without the first; and since the fall that is difficult.
John Broadbent, Paradise Lost: Introduction, 1972, page 75
The epic poet does not write to convince doubters or to propagate individual views, but to "assert." It is, of course, just those matters which an age assumes to be beyond questioning that later ages question, and epic poetry demands therefore a greater effort of imagination and a greater willingness to grant the writer's premises than does drama or lyric poetry. The poetic greatness of Paradise Lost is in large measure due to the fact that Milton was able to take so much for granted. He was not writing a work of Christian apologetics on the one hand or a symbolic novel on the other. He was writing an epic poem, retelling the best-known story in the world, and a story whose main meaning and import he did not have to establish.
Helen Gardner, A Reading of Paradise Lost, 1965, page 15
We are never, for one moment, away from Milton in Paradise Lost. It is overwhelmingly the product of his mind and his genius. But the vocation to "assert eternal providence" is faithfully pursued. His darkened eyes search out "thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers." And it is from the Archangel that Adam receives the reassurance that though He is now invisible, God's presence follows his people through the world. The vision must be asserted because it will never, in the realm of nature, be automatically felt.
A. N. Wilson, The Life of John Milton, 1983, page 213