Contemporary Critical Reception and Influence on Later Writers: Peering into Paradise

John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, has earned the reputation of being one of the greatest long poems in the English canon. It literally became a cannon, that still continues to fire and challenge the minds of critics from when it was first published all the way to the present day. This epic sparked great interest to people, and also became the center of critical debate about a variety of aspects about the poem. John Milton was a man who had a number of influential opponents due to his radical ideologies, especially about his support on divorce and political complaint pamphleteering. Despite this unwelcoming atmosphere that had surrounded Milton, Paradise Lost was hard to ignore and it was still regarded as a work of genius, even by Milton’s political opponents. However not everyone in the literary world took Paradise Lost as a great achievement, the epic was also met with constant criticism. Writers have even opted to attempt to rewrite the epic to their standards of poetry, make corrections to the text itself, and create mock-epics to respond to Milton. The overall criticism involving Paradise Lost had actually enriched the poem itself, putting it on a literary pedestal for future generations of critics to see and build upon more. Although Paradise Lost is met with constant debate and mixed feelings about its content, this epic still possesses the ability to influence writers, and also has the necessary attributes to be of canonical status.

After Paradise Lost was published in 1667, it was met with immediate reception from major critics of the time and different views about it as well. One of the first major responses to Paradise Lost was from poetic and literary critic John Dryden. Imitation is the best form of flattery on Dryden’s behalf, for Dryden was influenced by Paradise Lost so much that he had created his own adaptation of the epic in the form of a play in rhyming prose (Fletcher). Milton’s note about his feelings on the ‘troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ obviously had no effect on Dryden. Dryden also felt that Satan, not Adam, was the hero of the epic (Fletcher). Dryden was also a Royalist, a full on political opponent of Milton who was against The Restoration. Despite the political tensions and labels, Milton’s creation was still met with open arms. Dryden’s adaptation of Paradise Lost was more of a tribute rather than a work of satire, it was titled The State of Innocence and it also sold more copies than Milton’s epic until the end of the Seventeenth century (Fletcher). The epic then started to grow as more critics and adept readers began to peer into Milton’s Paradise.

Paradise Lost also caught the attention of Joseph Addison and his magazine The Spectator. Addison goes on to explore and thoroughly analyze Paradise Lost by the rules of epic poetry according to the Poetics of Aristotle and the Art of Poetry of Horace (Addison). Addison examines Paradise Lost and compares and contrasts its structure and internal workings with that of the Iliad and Aeneid. Addison says that in order for Paradise Lost to be an epic it must have: a plot called a fable, and three actions or qualifications (Addison). Addison explains how Paradise Lost parallels with the Iliad and Aeneid in terms of the three qualifications, and in the process goes on to prove that it is in fact an epic. Paradise Lost as an epic made its way into the hands of writers who saw it as an addition and enhancement to their own works, while others completely saw the epic as something that needed to be fixed in order to be acceptable.

Paradise Lost had influenced Voltaire, who mentioned Milton and his epic in his French satire Candide (Teskey 382). In a particular scene in Candide, the main character Candide visits the palace of a Venetian nobleman who completely belittles Milton’s epic, “[…] that barbarian who made a long commentary in ten books of turgid verse on the first chapter of Genesis? That clumsy imitator of the Greeks […] This poem, which is obscure, bizarre, and disgusting […]” (Voltaire). Although these were harsh words written from Voltaire’s hand, Voltaire was simply satirizing literary criticism of the day by having a nobleman character, by the name of Pococurante which translates to “cares for little”, deliver negative opinions about great authors (Teskey 382). Voltaire actually holds Milton’s epic up to a high esteem as he writes in his Essay upon the Epick poetry of the European Nations, “The Paradise Lost is the only poem wherein are to be found in a perfect degree that uniformity which satisfies the mind and that variety which pleases the imagination” (Voltaire). However, praise and approval for Paradise Lost was not always the case, as there were those who saw the epic as greatly flawed. A man named Richard Bentley, a textual critic, took Milton’s epic and published an emended edition where Bentley replaced words with other words that Bentley felt were more suitable (Fletcher). His commentary and revisions attracted a wide range of critics who usually had negative things to say about his changes. William Cowper, an Eighteenth century English poet, even criticized Bentley’s criticism about Milton’s choice of words (Fletcher). Although Milton’s epic amazed critics and made other critics upset about the way it was written, it kept people talking to the point that it embedded itself into the minds of writers and eventually influenced them greatly.

Paradise Lost became an epic that could only be imitated and would be difficult to upstage in terms of content, style, and prose. Mock-epics were written with echoes of Paradise Lost, along with other epics as well. An example could be of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, where it can be observed that Pope was influenced greatly by Milton’s epic as he made a parody of it and readers could see allusions of Paradise Lost within it. Another example can be of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake highlighted and implied that Milton sympathized with the devil (Fletcher). Blake also remarked that Milton was of the devil’s party and did not even know it. Blake’s implications of Milton’s religious allegiance and content sparked and influenced the intense debate and criticism about Milton for the rest of the twentieth century (Fletcher).

Paradise Lost has influenced modern writers as well, such as Phillip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman himself mentioned that he wanted to create a version of Paradise Lost for teenagers (Laurence). Pullman applied many ideas and influences from Paradise Lost and incorporated them into his own works. Both Milton and Pullman share the same concerns about freedom and authority, which can be observed in both Paradise Lost and Pullman’s trilogy. Additionally in both works a single act of disobedience brings forth something new into the world, in Paradise Lost sin is introduced and in His Dark Materials Dust is brought forth (Laurence). Both authors are also concerned with the power of knowledge and ignorance and how these qualities can affect different outcomes. In His Dark Materials, Pullman portrays the character of God in his works as a God who maintains his power by preventing people from gaining knowledge (Laurence). While in Paradise Lost, Satan argues that God is intellectually repressive to both Adam and Eve as he tries to convince them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge even though they were told not to.

Paradise Lost is in the canon because it is able to stay relevant to readers, writers, and artists. A piece of work can last possibly forever, but have its significance tested constantly for it to become an immortal work. Paradise Lost is of canonical status because it is able to have a significant context, and a way to connect with an audience through a theological and philosophical way (Blessington). Milton retells the story of Creation and the Fall and expands on it greatly in addition to fulfilling his purpose of “justifying the ways of God to man”. Another reason why Paradise Lost is in the canon is because it has momentous depth. There is a certain resonance to it because the epic contains remnants and overtones of literary works that have been created before it (Blessington). Milton created Paradise Lost with a variety of influences in mind as he incorporated everything he had learned and read into one great epic. Molded into the poem are traces of verbal echoes from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, and English poetry (Blessington). Milton’s distinctive style of prose was heavily influenced by the original pros of prose that he had studied in college. The multitude of concepts in Paradise Lost includes: political liberty, the nature of God, free will, human history, the nature of power and rebellion, the interpretations of dreams, and the line between knowledge and ignorance, to name a few (Blessington). When a writer presents so many ideas with such intelligence and dignity, we think and feel them even if we happen to disagree with what he is conveying. Another quality of why Paradise Lost is in the canon is because of its originality. It was a bold and daring move for Milton to not only add character and personalities to Adam and Eve, but to also give character and personalities to both God and Satan as well. Paradise Lost is also original because it is written in blank verse, opposed to the “bondage of rhyme” as Milton stated. Another quality that Paradise Lost contains is the power of being memorable. The words, images, characters, and overall story plot in Paradise Lost ultimately embed themselves into the minds of writers, readers, and critics. The final reason why Paradise Lost is in the canon is that it serves as a stimulant for present and future writers, readers, and critics. Paradise Lost has become a timeless universal inspiration. Milton also found no lack in imitators to his style, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with writers such as Dryden, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley who freely interpreted and imitated Milton’s style (Blessington). Furthermore, Paradise Lost has also inspired operas, ballets, screenplays, and paintings (Blessington). Even in modern times Paradise Lost has made an impact in the world of music as well, the epic inspired a band to name themselves Paradise Lost. Another band named Cradle of Filth had released a theme album dedicated to Paradise Lost including songs with lyrics that are inspired by Milton’s epic. The publication of Milton’s influential epic has definitely made a significant splash in the literary world as it is also able to continually resonate beyond the sphere of literature and into other realms of art.

Addison, Joseph. Spectator #267. Daily Publication Magazine. England. 1712

Blessington, Francis C. Paradise Lost: A Student’s Companion. Nebraska. 2004
Fletcher, Katherine. A Biography of John Milton. 2008. 11 November 2010.
Laurence, Jon. The Legacy of Paradise Lost. 2008. 12 November 2010.

Teskey, Gordon. Paradise Lost. London. Norton & Company 2005.

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