In his first book, Milton's Grand Style, Christopher Ricks showed us that Milton wanted his readers to be attentive to the fact that when our 'first parents' fell, their language fell with them. Paradise Lost could only have been written in the language we were left with after the catastrophe, but is partly about the language we started with, and what happened to it. Our words have a prior innocence; Adam and Eve meant what they said, and after the Fall they didn't. The first language was innocent because there was nothing to be duplicitous about; there was no interpretation because there was nothing to interpret. This 'play', as Ricks called it, the drama within the larger drama of the poem, is difficult to be alert to, so immersed are we in the fallen world. The critic, like the poet, has to be a double agent, using the language of dire experience to remind us of our (lost) innocence. 'It is easy to point to, though admittedly hard to substantiate,' Ricks writes, in a distinction that runs through his work (he has always been mindful of just how unverifiable interpretation tends to be).
Take grateful, for instance. Sometimes it has the sense of 'thankful', sometimes of 'pleasing' (both are common 17th-century meanings). Perhaps Milton's fondness for the word is a reflection of the fact that in a prelapsarian state there would be no distinction of this kind. Adam and Eve were thankful for what pleased them, and being thankful is itself a pleasure.
LRB 22 July 2010 | PDF Download