Milton pp 189-204 | Cite as

Time and Eternity: Paradox and Structure in Paradise Lost (1960)

Part of the Modern Judgements book series (MOJU)


Part of the difficulty of Paradise Lost lies in its enormous scope, which makes it almost impossible for modern critics to apply their analytical tools; part of its difficulty undeniably lies in its reliant reference to two worlds — the classical and the Biblical — now closed to the common reader. But part of its difficulty, and indeed a concealed difficulty, lies in the nature of Christian doctrine. Milton wrote, as he intended, a poem doctrinal to a nation, a poem designed to teach men various lessons — that Christian doctrine is true, that man can and must live by it, that Christian life, though hard, is infinitely worth the effort it demands. Christian belief is not easy, even intellectually: the Christian is regularly required, for instance, to express his belief in a number of essentially paradoxical articles of faith. To begin with an orthodox paradox from which Milton himself conspicuously fell away, the Christian believes in a Trinity which is One and a Unity which is Triune. He believes in an unknowable God and is instructed that his duty is to know that God; he believes in the resurrection of the dead. In fact, every time the Christian affirms his Creed, he formally recapitulates a number of logical or empirical paradoxes. The point of such formulation, of course, is the denial of logic and mundane experience to assert the mystery of faith.1 Quoting Tertullian, Sir Thomas Browne proclaimed his especial pleasure in believing what was impossible;2 a whole school of poets contemporary with him and with Milton exploited in rhetorical paradoxes of great brilliance the conventional Christian paradoxes of grace.


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  1. 1.
    For interesting comments on this point, see Arthur Barker, ‘Structural in Pattern Paradise Lost’, in Philological Quarterly, XXVIII (1949) 18; Kester Svendsen, Milton and Science (1956) pp. 105–7.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See A. O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas (1948) pp. 277–95; and articles by Clarence C. Green, in Modern Language Notes, LIII (1938) 557–71,Google Scholar
  3. and Millicent Bell, in PMLA LXVIII (1953) 863–88,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. as well as Mrs Bell’s exchange with Wayne Schumaker, in PMLA LXX (1955) 1118–203. The splendid term’orthodox paradoxes’ comes from Ralph yenning’s catechetical work of that title, which went into many editions through the mid-seventeenth century. Because of its popularity, its classically paradoxical presentation of the articles of faith, and its convenience, I have cited Venning in several cases instead of the grander paradoxes of the fathers or the scattered paradoxical formulations that fill seventeenth-century religious writing.Google Scholar
  5. 24.
    On Milton’s heresies and doctrine see, inter alia, Lewis, p. 89; B. Rajan, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth-century Reader (1947) ch. 2; Maurice Kelley, This Great Argument (1941); George Newton Conklin, Biblical Criticism and Heresy in Milton (1949); A. S. P. Woodhouse, ‘Notes on Milton’s Views on the Creation: the Initial Phases’, in Philological Quarterly XXVIII (1949) 211–36.Google Scholar

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© Macmillan Publishers Limited 1968

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