A Preface to Paradise Lost

Reading Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost is my first book-length venture into Lewis’ literary criticism. Considering that this is Lewis’ native soil, while his apologetics and fiction was only what he did in his spare time (would that I could produce things so valuable in my spare time!), and considering that I am both a lover of and a student of literature, it really ought not to have taken me this long to do so!

Lewis describes his intention in A Preface as “mainly ‘to hinder hindrances’ to the appreciation of Paradise Lost”—in other words, to clear rocks off the path for those trying to walk down Milton Street. As such, different elements in A Preface will no doubt have varying degrees of helpfulness to different people—the rock that is in your way may not have been in mine, but I may have been in danger of tripping over a different one.

One of the things that delights me about Lewis is that he is as lucid in his this piece of literary criticism as he is in his more popular works, and his writing style is still a joy to read. In addition, as someone once said, what Lewis believed about everything came into what he wrote about anything, so even in his literary criticism, I can taste the Lewisian worldview.

This is a “sharing gems” post rather than an extended review, so without further ado, here are some cuttings for you to enjoy.

“The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.” (1)

“Certain things, if not seen as lovely or detestable, are not being correctly seen at all…. Hence the awakening and moulding of the reader’s or hearer’s emotions is a necessary element in that vision of concrete reality which poetry hopes to produce.” (53-54)

“It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find…. in all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and everyone who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash…. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder…. It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan; but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. Because he was, like the rest of us, damnable, it does not follow that he was, like Satan, damned.” (100-101)

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