Living Texts: Interpreting Milton

By Kristin A. Pruitt; Charles W. Durham | Go to book overview

When Worlds Collide: The Central
Naturalistic Narrative and the Allegorical
Dimension to Paradise Lost

SARAH R. MORRISON

Addison and Johnson very early faulted Milton for his handling of “such airy beings” as Sin and Death in his epic,1 and generations of readers have followed them in expressing distaste for the clashing of two seemingly incompatible narrative planes in those scenes that have the profound psychological portrait that is Satan conversing with—and, in one instance, almost coming to blows with—personified abstractions. As Kenneth Borris observes, the “allegorical aspect of Paradise Lost has embarrassed many subsequent Miltonists who have ignored or sought to restrict or deny it.”2 There is considerable disagreement about the precise nature and extent of the allegory Milton employs in his grand epic. Critics continue to haggle over issues of decorum, genre, intentionality, and narrative authority raised by Milton's use of allegory in Paradise Lost.3

Why are the allegorical elements in Milton's epic so disturbing to so many readers? Many modern readers, of course, simply dislike allegory and react negatively to blatantly allegorical representations. Some critics, aware that in the seventeenth century allegory was increasingly viewed, in Gordon Teskey's words, “as an empty and tedious game,”4 have difficulty reconciling the dualistic philosophical implications of its use with other elements in the poem. The central, naturalistic narrative of Paradise Lost would seem to validate experiential reality and, in keeping with Milton's Christian materialism, attempts to join almost seamlessly the physical realm and the spiritual. Allegory by its very nature posits a higher reality and reduces physical representation to the symbolic. And it seems reasonable to assume that Milton—even if he did not actually share his contemporaries' disenchantment with allegory—was aware of the

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