John Milton, the Greatest Literary Figure?
Yesterday, I made light of the endeavor to rank Shakespeare or Milton, one or the other, as the greater literary giant. But Gregory Machacek, writing on the Milton List, reminds us that Milton demanded that we rank his work:
BUT, would Milton himself have shared our dismissiveness regarding literary evaluation, even ranking? Milton, who proclaimed that his epic would sing the better fortitude of patience and poetic martyrdom that previous epic had left unsung. Who early expresses his intent to soar above th'Aonian mount. Who dared to be known to think Spenser a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.Well, when you put it that way . . . I guess that I have to risk an opinion, so I did:
When we refuse Milton's invitation to rank his poem relative to others that have and might be written, do we miss something important about the epic? Do we refuse something Milton asks us to do?
I can hazard a judgement even if -- to paraphrase Obama -- it's above my payscale.Perhaps some obscure writer is somewhere scribbling away in obscurity on the next greatest epic poem . . . though perhaps it will be merely the 'next-greatest'.
I think Paradise Lost the greatest literary work in English, but I am at a loss to defend this opinion very well. I haven't developed my literary critical skills enough, nor have I read enough, to justify it.
I suspect that my opinion depends upon assumptions about poetry being the most difficult of the literary arts and epic poetry the most difficult sort of poem. Milton undertook an epic that would deal with the greatest of themes . . . and succeeded.
It's hard to see how anyone could undertake to surpass Milton except by writing an epic poem about the end of the story, i.e., Judgement Day.
A clever poet could then have God Himself pronounce a judgement in this difficult case -- presumably in favor of the clever poet.