'The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.' William Blake wrote these words near the end of the 18th century and set going the idea that Paradise Lost, Milton's epic justifying the ways of God to men, had a twofold force: an orthodox ostensible meaning and a profoundly unorthodox unconscious meaning, the latter being far stronger than the former. After Blake Milton criticism could be roughly divided into two camps: those who argued that Christian orthodoxy was central to the poem and those who detected unorthodox energies everywhere. C.S. Lewis admired the poem for its 'mere Christianity' and William Empson thought Milton should be honoured for the unsparing philosophical honesty of his exploration, an honesty which necessarily ended by exposing the weakness of the case for God. In 1967 Stanley Fish published Surprised by Sin, in which he allowed that Milton gives frequent expression to anti-Christian views and feelings but insisted that these passages always describe a temporary temptation. The great similes, drawn from pagan mythology, are allowed briefly to engross the imagination but are at last withdrawn, corrected, crushed. It is not just that people within the poem are tempted. The reader, too, is made to experience real temptation before he or she is brought back to truth. Heterodox critics are in this analysis readers who have no adequate prior conception of God and so are poorly defended against the allurements of sense and merely human emotions; they succumb to the temptation and fail to grasp the proffered correction. The goodness of God, meanwhile, is simply given, before the story begins, and is not open to question.
LRB 21 June 2001 | PDF Download