Andrew Marvell’s poem chronicles his reactions to the artistic merit of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in seven verse paragraphs of fifty-four rhymed iambic pentameter lines. The opening sentence forms a grammatical unit of ten lines. The remaining lines, marked with a grammatical pause at the end of each couplet, follow the poetic practice of end-stopped couplets.
Initially, Marvell contrasts Milton’s “slender Book” with its “vast Design,” its Christian topic of salvation history and its cosmic scope of infinite time and space. He fears that Milton will mar or disfigure “sacred Truths” by expressing them through, or by confining them within, the devices of an epic poem, a pagan or nonbiblical art form. Also, Marvell deals bluntly with Milton’s blindness, mentioning it in the first line as well as in lines 9-10 and lines 43-44. Milton had become blind at least fourteen years prior to the first publication of Paradise Lost in 1667. Marvell assumes that Milton’s blindness may have had something to do with his choice of a biblical “Argument” or subject. Tentatively, he questions Milton’s “Intent,” comparing Milton’s motives in writing the poem to those of the biblical Samson, who sought “to revenge his sight.”
As Marvell then begins to reflect upon his experience of reading, he grows “less severe.” He favors the poet’s “Project,” but he fears that Milton will not succeed, given the inherent difficulty of the subject matter. Milton’s poem concerns truths beyond physical nature and beyond human comprehension. He might, for example, leave his readers “perplex’d” with matters of thought and faith, doctrines involving paradoxes and simplicities. In addition, Marvell associates Milton’s epic with the contemporary literary scene. He imagines that someone less skillful will imitate Milton’s poem by writing a play based upon it. He seems to refer to John Dryden, who had recently written a dramatic version of Paradise Lost in rhymed verse entitled The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man (1677).
In his next paragraph, Marvell unexpectedly addresses Milton directly, speaking with deep respect and sympathy. He now realizes that a view of the poem as a whole demonstrates its artistic perfection. Consequently, he apologizes to Milton for his “causeless” doubts or speculations. He believes that Milton’s artistic achievement is so great that other writers will have to work within the frame of reference Milton has laid down, even though Paradise Lost will demonstrate “their Ignorance or Theft.” Also, Marvell praises the “Majesty” of Milton’s poem, which “Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.” He believes that Milton’s handling of religious truths within the medium of a pagan epic leaves those truths as well as Milton himself “inviolate.” Moreover, Milton’s sustained elevation of style and his ability to handle large and fearsome truths leave his readers awed and delighted because he sings “with so much gravity and ease.”
Marvell specifically commends Milton’s powers of mind and determination. Earlier in the poem, he had called Milton “blind, yet bold,” as well as “strong.” Blindness had not diminished Milton’s poetic ambition, daring, or capability. In the sixth paragraph, Marvell asserts that “Heav’n” must have offset Milton’s loss of physical sight with the power of prophecy. In the last paragraph, Marvell defends Milton’s decision to reject rhyme at a time when the popular taste called for it. Other poets, such as Marvell himself, have used rhyme as ornament or fashion. Rhyme, however, seems trivial next to the unrhymed grandeur of Paradise Lost. Milton’s blank verse is as sublime as his theme; it does not need the support of rhyme. Forms and Devices
As Marvell recounts the way Paradise Lost unfolded itself to him, his thoughts evolve dramatically from doubt to resolution. He begins by addressing readers and ends by addressing Milton himself. Although a personal friend of Milton and a professional colleague...
Links: the poem with its biblical sources.< /BiblioPar> Lewalski, Barbara. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2002. Focuses on Milton’s religious, political, and literary development.
Lewis, C. S. A Preface to “Paradise Lost.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Considers epic form in general and continues with a discussion of Milton’s epic, based on a specifically Christian interpretation. Rath er dogmatic, this is nevertheless a lucid, enormously helpful analysis of form and doctrinal issues.
Miller, Timothy C. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997. A documentary history of reviews and articles, with an introductory account.
Lieb, Michael and John T. Shawcross, eds. Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2007. Volume one of this two-volume set contains the original 1667 edition of Paradise Lost, which was br oken into ten books. The second volume is comprised of ten scholarly essays that explore the differences between the original edition and the better-known 1674 edition, which consists of twelve books. The essayists look at the poem in its literary and historical context, and some make arguments that the 10 book format was a bette r venue for Milton to convey his thoughts.
Patrides, C. A., ed. Approaches to “Paradise Lost.” London: Edward Arnold, 1968. Contains a series of lectures offering a wide variety of approaches, such as literary, doctrinal, musical, and iconographical. Illustrations. Th e broad range of this book is an aid to appreciating the complexity of the poem and the vast array of Milton criticism that is available.
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