Reading writing in Paradise Lost
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WHEN Milton claimed that his epic project demanded ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’ he explicitly laid claim to immortality. For the first three hundred years of its life Paradise Lost has done well enough as immortals go. Readers have seemed, on the whole, to accept Milton’s claim to poetic achievement — to literary authority. Before readers and critics regard a work as literature rather than merely discourse — that is, any form of writing whether fictive or a shopping list — a writer has to gain acceptance as an author [Foucault, 1986], worthy of explanatory activity by critics and the loving attention of editors. A number of Renaissance poets, Jonson and Milton amongst them, were concerned to construct within their writings a self-image of the ‘laureate’ which would distinguish them from amateur gentlemen poets [Helgerson, 1983]. Having given frequent notice to readers, in his early poems, of his intention to write something ‘so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die’ [Prose, ii 478], in Paradise Lost itself Milton consciously set out to ‘overgo’ previous epics both classical and modern [pp. 22–5, above]. Milton was, in fact, painfully conscious that his might be ‘an age too late’ for the writing of an epic poem [ix 44], that the time for such heroic enterprises might have passed. Amongst other things, the distinction of his precursors had raised the stakes, making it more difficult to achieve that originality which was coming to be a requirement of such poetic authority [cf. Guillory, 1983].
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