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Inside "Paradise Lost": Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic
Princeton University Press, 2014
344 pp., $39.95
Jessica Hooten Wilson
Of the Devil’s Party?
More than a century after John Milton penned Paradise Lost, the Romantic poet William Blake noted that, as "a true Poet," Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." Other Romantic contemporaries, such as Percy Shelley, followed suit and applauded Milton for creating a character who supersedes his Creator. Even apart from the characterization of the devils, Milton's poem prefigures the Romantic idealization of poetry as salvific. David Quint's Inside Paradise Lost depicts a Milton who rewrites his poetic predecessors, dueling with Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and even Paul. While the book underlines the ways that Milton alludes to a vast array of epic writers, it shows Milton constantly contesting these voices and attempting to trump them for his own glory. Perhaps the most startling revision is of biblical texts, especially for a writer who, in some places in Paradise Lost, creates images that reveal truth, such as the demons' metamorphosis into hissing serpents. Yet, in an off-handed comment, Quint summarizes the problem with Milton's poetry: it is "more Miltonic than Christian," which, of course, situates him yet again within the Devil's Party.
Quint's goal is to show how Milton writes the grand finale for the epic tradition with a poem that defies the usual subject matter of epics:
The message of Paradise Lost is: make love, not war. The poem that pretends to begin the epic tradition by retelling events that preceded those of all earlier epics would also end the epic genre by condemning its traditional subject matters, war and empire.
Quint opens his introduction with this claim. (Side note: this is one of the many times that Quint neglects Dante's Divine Comedy, the epic that chose love as its subject matter over three centuries before Milton's poem.) Without drawing neat lines between the two, Quint dichotomizes envy and charity, the city of man versus the city of God, the devils against ...