Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Milton, the Greatest Literary Figure?

John Milton
The Greatest Writer?
(Image from Wikipedia)

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.

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?
Well, when you put it that way . . . I guess that I have to risk an opinion, so I did:
I can hazard a judgement even if -- to paraphrase Obama -- it's above my payscale.

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.
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'.

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At 3:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to add my insight into John Milton.........unfortunately, epic poetry is a little above my ability to comment intelligently.

I am about the level of a short verse I read once, but don't remember the author:

"I put my hat upon my head, and walked upon the strand.
And as I walked, I met a man whose hat was in his hand."

I leave this discussion to the experts.


At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that the anonymous poet you quote was urging us to be individuals. Wear your hat, or carry it in your hand. Your choice. It's therefore about free will and thus was written from an Arminian perspective to counter the predestinarian views of Jean Calvin. It is thereby an epic little poem itself.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fascinating rending of a short rhyme, (Or is that rendering?). It's amazing what a poet can conceal in a simple verse.

I am more of a realist.

Such as the hillbilly who was drafted into the army.

One day he came running to his sergeant, and said, "Sargent, I have to git back home, fer there's a fambly problem I need ter tend to!"
Asked what was the problem, he said, "Ma writ me a letter, and sed she found my wife in bed with ArthrItis. Ive Heered of them Itis'es, and they say ole Arthr is the meanest one uv 'em."

(Analyze that one, nephew).


At 7:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That ole Arthr had best hope ole Burse his wife don't find out about this or he'll be in a peck uh trouble.

Though peck-uh trouble would sure 'nuff be fittin' for that ole boy.

Jeffery Hodges

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