On the Neglect of Human Emotion in “Paradise Lost”: A Rebuttal
Within Virginia Woolf’s letter and diary entry, she discusses her thoughts on John Milton’s writing style within “Paradise Lost,” and reveals her feeling that Milton, while clearly an expert of literary description, does very little to touch upon human passions and emotion within his poem. Upon reading “Paradise Lost,” it is clear that Woolf has a point; extravagant descriptions of heaven, hell, angels and God abound within the epic, but instances of human sentiment are more difficult to come across. Woolf goes as far as to say that Milton “entirely neglects the human heart.” While Woolf’s statement is not entirely accurate, Milton’s ornate imageries and accounts of venerated deities waging war against sinister demonic entities certainly may appear detached and daunting upon first glance; but after an assiduous perusal of the epic, indications of humanistic emotion within the text become apparent. Despite Milton’s frequent emotionally distant descriptions, within certain points within the poem emotion does manage to percolate through Milton’s scholarly poetic portrayals. The rarity of these scenes make them all the more poignant, although one may have to analyze the specific meaning of what Milton is saying in certain lines in order to completely comprehend the sentimentality behind what he writes. Though Milton may remain relatively impersonal throughout his poem, the central themes and the characters contained within it say a lot about Milton’s personal beliefs; this is particularly evident in his character’s soliloquies and discussions. Satan in particular serves to portray certain aspects of Milton’s principles that make it clear that human feeling is not left entirely out of the equation for the author. One instance of personal emotion Milton allows to escape within “Paradise Lost” is found within the second invocation in the poem, in the beginning of Book III. Within this passage, Milton is invoking “holy light” and asking that this light shine through his mind and allow him to “see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight!” Milton also makes references in this passage to his loss of vision, describing other prophets and poets who were also struck with blindness. One of Milton’s critics states that “There is much to be said for reading Milton less as thesis driven and more as one who worked and worried over the things he wrote, finally leaving many decisions to the reader (Grossman, 264)." The viewpoint Grossman suggests is an ideal one to take while considering this particular passage; it is easy to get absorbed in the historical backgrounds or mythological allusions behind what Milton is writing and forget to consider the state of mind Milton was in while writing instead. While some of the lines within the invocation still hold the aloof, pretentiously scholarly air Milton assumes throughout much of “Paradise Lost,” a particular cluster of lines allow the reader to feel some of the grief Milton holds concerning his lack of sight. He writes “Thus with the year / Seasons return but not to me returns / Day or the sweet approach of ev’n or morn / Or sight of vernal bloom or summer’s rose / Or flocks or herds or human face divine / But cloud instead and ever-during dark / Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men / Cut off and, for the book of knowledge fair, / Presented with a universal blank / Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed / And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out (3.40-50).” These lines are particularly emotional; not only do they outline specific sights Milton will never again be able to lay his eyes upon, but they also inadvertently address a sense of vulnerability Milton feels because of his inability to read to obtain knowledge. Further information about Milton’s personal life makes these lines all the more meaningful- Milton read voraciously in many different languages during his youth, and many scholars agree that he read...
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