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The narrator as chorus in 'Paradise Lost.'

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 1993   by Jane Melbourne

Milton's narrator invokes his muse to aid the "advent'rous Song" that is Paradise Lost, "while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme" (1:12-16).(1) Its attempt, I suggest, is to incorporate the choric voice of tragedy into the narrative structure of epic, as well as to incorporate Christian subject matter. The Trinity manuscript and Edward Phillips's biography provide evidence that Paradise Lost was conceived as tragedy and, in part, written as tragedy many years before it was published as epic. I propose that during its long gestation, the chorus became the narrator, retaining nevertheless, by conscious choice of the author, the personality and roles of a chorus, which are quite different from the personality and role of a traditional epic narrator.

A chorus, as Aristotle says, is one of the actors. "It should be an integral part of the whole, and take a share in the action--that which it has in Sophocles, rather than in Euripides" (On Poetics, 18)(2)--and which it has to an even greater extent in Aeschylus. A narrator, on the other hand, should be as transparent as possible, saying very little in his own person. He is best when, like Homer, he introduces his characters and gets out of their way (On Poetics, 24). Milton's narrator is more like Aristotle's description of a chorus than he is like Aristotle's description of a narrator.

In almost all particulars, the narrator of Paradise Lost also fits Thomas G. Rosenmeyer's description of the chorus of a Greek tragedy. The chorus, in addition to being a character in its own right, which at its best is as fully delineated and individualized as the other characters of the play, is "a delegate of the community within the body of the action, connecting the two worlds without removing the barrier necessary to maintain psychic distance ... a witness, with all the social and ritual implications of that term."(3) At times, although there is disagreement on this point, the chorus may also be the voice of the poet, perhaps "in statements that appear unusually important or impressive and at the same time are tied only loosely to the action."(4) Milton's narrator fills the choric roles of actor, witness, and poet.

The chorus has responsibility for exposition--for narrating legends, past events, and actions that occur offstage; describing the scene; introducing the characters; and engaging them in dialogue. It has responsibilities for liturgy--invocation, supplication, lamentation, praise, blame, warning, and prophecy. With the exception of engaging the characters in dialogue, Milton's narrator fulfills these responsibilities.

Compared to other characters in Greek tragedy, the chorus is frequently inconsistent, speaking differently in its different roles. Within a single play, for instance, a chorus is capable both of revelatory insight and blank misapprehension. A similar inconsistency is true, I believe, of Milton's narrator. It is difficult, if not impossible, to read this narrator as if the whole of his narrative is in all parts unified.

Readers have tended to read the narrator as the voice of Milton, as if the narrator and author were one and the same. Such a reading seems justified in the proems to Books 1, 3, 7, and 9, at least, but presents problems at points where "Milton" intrudes himself upon his narration in unepic fashion or where "Milton" appears to misunderstand the actions of his characters.

Addison, the first critic to object to the intrusiveness of the narrator, assumed that the narrator was Milton. He compares "Milton" unfavorably to Homer and faults him for his many digressions, his too frequent allusion to inappropriate heathen fables, and his ostentatious show of erudition.(5) Addison sees what is in fact present, but misinterprets its meaning. What he sees, I believe, is the choric narrator as actor and witness, a seventeenth-century man, educated but obtuse, and embarrassingly proud of his knowledge in an epic in which knowledge is suspect--our contemporary in the scale of time the epic represents.

If this narrator were Milton, his intrusions would be objectionable, but Milton is not so un-selfconscious an artist, and he knows Aristotle as well as Addison does. He frames his two discussions of tragedy--a personal digression within The Reason of Church Government and "Of that Sort of Dramatic Poem which is Call'd Tragedy," the preface to Samson Agonistes, in Aristotle's terms;(6) and when he wishes to create the transparent epic narrator Aristotle praises, he creates Raphael, the narrator of the war in heaven and the creation of earth. The narrator of the epic is Milton's creation, not Milton.

In her groundbreaking study of the epic voice as persona, Anne D. Ferry notes that the habit in criticism of referring to the narrator as "Milton" makes more difficult the problems caused by frequent contradictions between the narrator's interpretative comments and the immediate impression made upon a reader by the characters' words and actions.(7) She objects to readings of the epic as drama that, when such contradictions occur, dismiss the narrator as irrelevant. Such readings suggest that the apparently inappropriate comments stem either from the author-narrator's nervous fear that the dramatic passages are subverting his conscious intentions, or that, as an artist, Milton is just plain clumsy. In place of "Milton," Ferry posits an omnipresent and reliable narrative voice, created and defined in the proems as metaphors of a bird and a blind bard, representing the persona's dual nature as fallen man and inspired seer.

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