Paradise Lost, the Miltonic “Or,” and the Poetics of Incertitude

  • Peter C. Herman


In this chapter, I will show how the uncertainties created and symbolized by Milton’s epic similes and metaphors can be found in the smallest details of Paradise Lost as well as the larger narrative. In many ways, the crux of the poem is a small word—“or”—which constitutes the DNA, as it were, of the poem’s competing narratives. Albert C. Labriola has proposed that “all” constitutes “the essence of Paradise Lost,” by which Labriola means what he perceives as the extraordinary unity of the poem.1 Labriola’s statement, however, that “all” constitutes “a deep structure that generates, among others, both interrogatory and declarative surface structures, a linguistic universal implying any number of particular reformulations” (42), applies equally well to the omnipresence of “or,” which is, of course, the undoing of “all” since unresolved choice implicitly deconstructs the imposition of unity called for by “all.” Labriola is not wrong in his assessment of “all”s importance, but we need to balance the drive toward unity with the equal drive toward duality and incertitude. In other words, although one must recognize the presence of a strong, totalizing impulse within the poem, a desire for unity and a movement toward organicism, one also needs to recognize that this impulse is countered by an equally powerful counter-tendency toward undoing unity and toward unresolved choices leading to aporias, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.


Deep Structure Regent Power Paradise Lost Fundamental Immobility Break Union 
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Copyright information

© Peter C. Herman 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter C. Herman
    • 1
  1. 1.San Diego State UniversityUSA

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