A Preface to Paradise Lost, Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures: Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941

A Preface to Paradise Lost, Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures: Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941

A Preface to Paradise Lost, Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures: Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941

A Preface to Paradise Lost, Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures: Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941

Excerpt

A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.

POPE.

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is-- what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

This need is specially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers. He is writing epic poetry which is a species of narrative poetry, and neither the species nor the genus is very well understood at present. The misunderstanding of the genus (narrative poetry) I have learned from looking into used copies of our great narrative poems. In them you find often enough a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin. It is easy to see what has happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting "good lines" --little ebullient patches of delight--such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up. Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves, he has had no conception. The misunderstanding of the species (epic narrative) I have learned from the errors of . . .

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