Milton and Scriptural Tradition: The Bible into Poetry

By James H. Sims; Leland Ryken | Go to book overview
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All-Interpreting Love: God's Name in Scripture and in Paradise Lost

Michael Fixler

It was William Empson who first found extraordinary Milton's use of the word all--612 times--in Paradise Lost, or about once every seventeen lines. Since the frequency is almost exactly that of Pope's use of wit, clearly the most significant word in Essay On Criticism, it seemed to him that the use of all in Milton's poem should suggest something equally significant. But this proved not to be the case. Or so Empson thought. Wit, as Pope used it, was a good example of what Empson called "the structure of complex words," whereas Milton's use of all, though it had "a good many connections with the whole theme" of Paradise Lost, remained in its meaning "very simple." It did "not actually collect meanings," as Empson's complex words were supposed to do; hence, he concluded it was not a particularly useful term with which to approach a reading of the poem. On the other hand, Empson thought all told us a great deal about Milton himself as an obsessive "absolutist, an all-or-none man," whose complex ulterior sympathies for Satan and fallen man were at odds in his poem with his "appalling theology."1

Empson, I believe, was quite wrong about the simplicity of all in Paradise Lost. All does collect meanings phenomenally and in a way connected with its extraordinary frequency of usage. The word works often within an apparently calculated range, signify

The quotations are from "All in Paradise Lost," in Empson The Structure of Complex Words ( London: Chatto & Windus, 1951), pp. 101-4, a section preceded immediately by the discussion, "Wit in the Essay on Criticism." Empson's more considered objections to Milton's "appalling theology" are in his later work, Milton's God ( London: Chatto & Windus, 1961).


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