On Criticisms of Paradise Lost
Joseph Addison’s criticism of Paradise Lost from The Spectator No. 267 is an
attempt to characterize the work as a heroic poem. Addison considers the rules of heroic poetry as set down by Père René
Le Bossu. The rules state that an epic poem should have but one action, action meaning the plot, motivations and
general motion of the poem. The action should be an entire action, with a beginning, middle and end; and it should
be a great action, in that it should be of great significance. Addison uses comparisons of Paradise Lost with
Iliad and Aenid—both widely accepted as the two great heroic epic poems. By making comparisons to them,
Addison makes a strong case for Paradise Lost to be included as a heroic poem.
* * *
Samuel Johnson takes minor issue with several of the weaknesses of Paradise Lost.
The main flaw, in his opinion, is that the reader will not be given any information about Hell, Heaven or the basic plot line
of the poem, as Johnson says, " . . . what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise." Johnson
makes an assumption that the reader of Paradise Lost will be a devout Christian, but certainly, the poem can be appreciated
by non-Christians, and by those who have devolved their faith. To the modern reader, Paradise Lost refreshes the biblical
stories and makes them new. Paradise Lost does not suffer greatly from this flaw, as there are a minority of devout
Christians in the world today.
Johnson’s other flaw is that the characters are un-worldly and cannot be related to
by the reader. He feels that readers will not be able to identify with Adam, Eve and the preter-natural setting of the poem.
This can only be seen as a minor flaw, if a flaw at all, since many stories take place in remote and fanciful settings. The
great mythologies of Greece and China are so removed from the "real" world as to be more unbelievable than Paradise Lost,
due to their displaced time and place. Moreover, a Christian reader will find Paradise Lost to be based on truth and
not fiction, and thus, understandable.
The 20th century reader has become accustomed to science fiction mythologies
like Star Trek and Star Wars—which are more distant and unfathomable, perhaps, than Paradise Lost.
Both of these fantasies have characters that are God-like and so alien to our way of thinking that they cannot be explained,
merely accepted. The stories are about how human characters deal with their situations, and they are accessible because the
morality is always based on human models. The reader of Paradise Lost can relate to its main characters because they
are "related" to us in human terms. One may take exception to the character of God, but he is no more unfathomable than many
of the characters of modern or ancient mythology. The reader can simply accept the rules of the story and suspend disbelief.
Furthermore, Paradise Lost is an epic that is not so much about God as it is about Satan, Eve and Adam, so if there
is any problem with the character of God, then it is a minor flaw at worst.
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