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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Does what a poem says matter? That is, assuming that it's possible to paraphrase a given poem, does the meaning of that paraphrase matter at all to the value of the poem as a poem? We can ignore the (possibly) related question of whether there are meanings so abhorrent that, in and of themselves, they disqualify a text from being called a poem by virtue of their expression in that text: a verse text written in praise of Pol Pot, for instance, or advocating that Jews be required to wear a yellow star. But just raising those possibilities makes it clear that the paraphrasable meaning of a poem does matter.

Taking a real example, is there any reason not to believe Milton when he declared his purpose was to "justifie the wayes of God to men"? If that was his purpose, was it his primary purpose? Was it mere convention, or did he mean it when he invoked the "Heav'nly Muse" to aid him in that project? When Raphael warned Adam against thinking too much about the how the planets move, was Milton really saying there are questions about the created world which might interfere with salvation, and therefore should not be asked? Does your opinion of Paradise Lost depend in any way on the answers to those questions? Does the answer to that question depend on your own religious beliefs?

I'm as committed an atheist as you're ever likely to meet. I despise the very idea of revelation. I think Milton wrote in order to convince his readers that the awful story of Genesis is true and that understanding our fallen state is the first key to salvation, and that he chose poetry as the most effective way to achieve that aim. And I think Paradise Lost is, without any rivals, the greatest poem in the English language. I read it twice a year.

How does what a poem says matter? More to come.


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