Milton Now pp 83-108 | Cite as

Sufficient and Free: The Poetry of Paradise Lost

  • Ann Baynes Coiro
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Choice structures Paradise Lost, mirroring God’s own creative design. Choices are not, however, easy or obvious (nor are they settled). The poem pivots upon characters’ moment-by-moment decisions about whether to follow precedent or think for themselves, whether to accept their place as part of a hierarchy or push for change.1 The poem’s narrator himself faces difficult choices. Although he dreams of heavenly concord, the speaker sings with mortal voice and is acutely aware that the “advent’rous” performance of his “Song” is risky at every turn.2 Above all, the reading audience’s continuous interpretive choices make Paradise Lost an unforgettable, sometimes life-altering experience (and an experience that can alter over the course of a life).


Paradise Lost English Poetry Classical Epic Epic Poetry Polyphonic Music 
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  1. 1.
    The best study of the poem’s immediacy is J. Martin Evans, The Miltonic Moment (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Paradise Lost, 1.13. Complete Poems and Major Poems, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 211. Further references to Milton’s poetry will be to this edition.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    See Stephen M. Wheeler, A Discourse of Wonders: Audience and Performance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) for an exemplary reading of Ovid’s late epic as troping on the form’s performative nature.Google Scholar
  4. 12.
    Prose 1668–1691, ed. Samuel Holt Monk, Works (Berkeley et al: University of California Press, 1971), 17.80. Further references to An Essay of Dramatick Poesy will be to this edition.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    Peter Herman’s Destabilizing Milton: Paradise Lost and the Poetics of Incertitude (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) makes this case, as do many of the essays gathered inGoogle Scholar
  6. The New Milton Criticism, ed. Peter Herman and Elizabeth Sauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Things were never as dire as these laments suggest. John Creaser has brilliantly deployed the prosodic analytic tools developed by Derek Attridge in Creaser’s “‘Service is Perfect Freedom’: Paradox and Prosodic Style in Paradise Lost,” RES, 58 (2007): 268–315 and “‘Amind of most exceptional energy’: Verse Rhythm in Paradise Lost,” in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 462–79. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  7. John Leonard’s Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford University Press, 1990) andGoogle Scholar
  8. Thomas Corns, Milton’s Language (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990). An example of historicism and formalism joined is David Norbrook’s exploration of the “republican sublime” in Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627–1660 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), andGoogle Scholar
  9. Barbara Lewalski’s Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) provides a sense of the breadth of Milton’s generic allusiveness. The most recent manifestation of formal and historicized work explores how Milton uses his language’s plasticity and palimpsestic history to think, in the process discovering his own ideas. See, for example,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gordon Teskey’s Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) who argues that Milton the poet emerges through a rift between the past and modernity, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. N. K. Sugimura’s “Matter of Glorious Trial”: Spiritual and Material Substance in Paradise Lost (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) who argues that, for Milton, language is a means of thought. 16. On thinking in verse, seeGoogle Scholar
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    Sprott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953); Bridges, Milton’s Prosody: An Examination of the Rules of the Blank Verse in Milton’s Later Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893); Prince (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954).Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    I am using Bradford’s graphireading, albeit in a very different way than he proposed. Verse paragraphs are discussed by Sprott in 1953, Sypher in 1955 and, in particular, Whaler in 1956. Critics working on numerological readings of Paradise Lost have used verse paragraphs as formal units. See Maren-Sofie Rostvig, The Hidden Sense (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget; New York, Humanities Press, 1963),Google Scholar
  19. Gunnar Qvarnström, The Enchanted Palace: Some Structural Aspects of Paradise Lost (Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksell, 1967), andGoogle Scholar
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  21. 45.
    In spite of Paul Stevens’s powerful arguments in Imagination and the Presence of Shakespeare in Paradise Lost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), John Guillory’s strong reading in Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York: Columbia, 1983) that Milton renounced imagination and thus felt he needed to have an antagonistic relationship with Shakespeare has remained widely influential.Google Scholar
  22. See also Jonathan Goldberg, Voice Terminal Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts (New York and London: Methuen, 1986), 124–58.Google Scholar
  23. 48.
    See AnnBaynes Coiro, “Reading” in list-Century Approachesto Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Henry S. Turner (Oxford University Press, 2013), 534–55.Google Scholar
  24. 51.
    On Plato and antitheatrical fears see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) andGoogle Scholar
  25. Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Antitheatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  26. 52.
    According to Milton’s nephew, Edward Phillips, The Early Lives of Milton, ed. Helen Darbishire (London: Constable, 1932), 72–73.Google Scholar
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    McColley, Poetry and Music in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 19. This chapter was originally published as “The Music of Poetry,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15 (1956): 232–44. I am indebted to Catherine Addison, “Once Upon a Time: A Reader-Response Approach to Prosody,” College English, 56 (1994): 655–78. To be fair to Hollander, older forms of scansion were necessarily subjective, even as they posited some ideal speaker.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Ann Baynes Coiro

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