From his early masque, Comus, to his prose pieces pertaining to the events surrounding the English Civil War, John Milton is often portrayed as a writer who was obsessed with the idea of reason, and how it could affect an individual’s choices. Literary scholars have long since debated the existence of certain instances in which a character’s reason affected the choices made in the text of Paradise Lost, for instance, Adam’s choice to eat the apple after Eve, or Satan’s decision to rebel against heaven and form his demon council in Hell. Scholars have also analyzed John Milton’s use of the literary device known as the Miltonic “or,” which offers differing choices of the meaning contained within the text, ultimately relying on the reader to choose for themselves, and by not emphasizing which item on either side of the “or” is preferred, Milton encourages the reader to engage in a rational interpretation of his poetry. In my paper, I will attempt to combine these two sides of the scholarly discussion on the topic of reason in Paradise Lost. By illustrating how reason is the driving force behind the events contained within the text, and how the reader’s own rational choices pertaining to the poems meaning, I will attempt to portray reason’s importance in Paradise Lost from a more complete perspective.
In my paper, I will begin by taking a more New Criticism approach in analyzing the text and the many instances in which the characters engage in rational thoughts and choices, and I will analyze the language and dialogue surrounding these instances. I will also examine the textual evidence and the precedent established by Milton when he created a rational God, and by illustrating the power of rationality and freewill in the poem, I will attempt to show how it made the fall of mankind possible. By taking this more objective stance when observing the patterns of reason constructed within Paradise Lost, I will be able to portray reason’s function within the text to the reader. This New Criticism approach will also allow me to illustrate the importance of the Miltonic “or,” and how it is used to create moments of choice for the reader of the poem. Along with New Criticism, I will also include a Historicist analysis in my paper, and I will detail the events surrounding the creation of the poem and how this could have affected John Milton and his work. I will mention that many scholars believe this poem has direct references to the English Civil War and the Restoration of Charles II, a time when Milton often questioned the reasoning of his fellow countrymen. After watching what he believed to be the start of a new country, one free from the monarch and governed by reason, crumble shortly after its inception, one can easily imagine that many of the moments of rationality contained within this epic are direct commentary on the events surrounding this time period. When I combine these two forms of reason, the textual instances and the active reasoning produced by the reader, and analyze the text through the lens of New Criticism and Historicism, I hope to produce a paper that paints reason as the crucial force behind John Milton’s Paradise Lost.