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What is Paradise Lost about? According to Tillyard, ‘the question has by no means been settled’ [1930, 237], nor is it now. Not only the answers, but the very formulation of the question, depend upon fundamental issues of literary theory. One could say that the difference between Samuel’s answer and Kermode’s (see Introduction) involves how one reads the title. Samuel is emphasising ‘Paradise’ and happiness, Kermode underlining ‘Lost’ and hence deprivation and death. This is not merely a subjective judgement, but a question of literary ideology. Reacting particularly to Kermode, Dyson and Lovelock [1973, 238–9] describe the great divide in literary criticism: one either believes ‘that truth itself is relative’, or one does not. Broadly speaking, ‘liberal humanist’ critics assume that literature reflects or at least attempts to express certain verities about human life. Literary consequences of this view include a conviction that, with due attention and adequate information, we can discover the ‘essential meaning’ of a text, and that this corresponds to the author’s intention in writing it. Some classic assumptions were challenged before deconstruction affected criticism, as for instance by Wimsatt and Beardsley in their attack on ‘the intentional fallacy’ .
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