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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

    John Dryden, from his preface to Annus Mirabilis (1667); see below

    Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator nos. 267 and 279

      Demaria, pp. 503

    Samuel Johnson, from The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781) - from Milton

      Demaria, pp. 716

    Greene, The Age of Exuberance, chaps. 3 and 4

Also read the introductory statements for the authors in Demaria.

DUE: Weekly Post #5 England and Wales groups

Following up on the excellent posts and discussion of Paradise Lost, we will continue our investigation of the nature of virtue and power in PL. This week's readings will emphasize how the eighteenth-century viewed Milton and his creation. Look for answers to the question: how did these authors define virtue and authority in Paradise Lost?

Notes and Discussion Questions:

John Dryden


We have already read Dryden's MacFlecknoe. Recall that poem and the comparison between the political and literary realms of authority. Dryden's poem Annus Mirabilis was published in 1667, the same year as Paradise Lost. It is a historical poem -- in contrast to a epic poem -- that celebrates the naval battles fought in 1666 against the Dutch; it ends with a tribute to the King as the caring patriarch who comforts London after the great fire of the same year. The success of this poem practically earns him the post of Poet Laureate for King Charles II.

I have selected a passage of the prefatory epistle to this poem, where Dryden lays out some of the principles of heroic poetry in his era -- and hence the era of Paradise Lost. What do these ideas tell you about poetic taste in this time? How do they reflect on Paradise Lost, a poem that Dryden recognized as a truly monumental achievement?

"For I have chosen the most heroic subject which any poet could desire: I have taken upon me to describe the motives, the beginning, progress and successes of a most just and necessary war; in it, the care, management and prudence of our king; the conduct and valour of a royal admiral, and of two incomparable generals: the invicible courage of our captains and seamen, and three glorious victories, the result of all....
I have called my poem historical, not epic, though both the actions and actors are as much heroic, as any poem can contain. But since the action is not properly one, nor that accomplished in the last successes, I have judged it too bold a title for a few stanzas, which are little more in number than a single Iliad, or the longest of the Aeneids....
I must crave leave to tell you, that as I have endeavoured to adorn it with noble thoughts, so much more to express those thoughts with elocution. The composition of all poems is, or ought to be, of wit, and wit in the poet, or wit writing, (if you will give me leave to use a school disinction) is no other than the faculty of imagination in the writer, which, like a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of memory, till it springs the quarry it hunted after; or, without metaphor, which searches over all the memory for the species or ideas which is well defined, the happy result of thought, or product of that imagination. But to proceed from wit in the general notion of it, to the proper wit of a heroic or historical poem, I judge it chiefly to consist in the delightful imaging of persons, actions, passions or things. 'Tis not the jerk or sting of an epigram, nor the seeming contradiction of a poor antithesis, (the delight of an ill-judging audience in a play of rhyme) nor the jingle of a more poor paranomasia: neither is it so much the morality of a grave sentence, affected by Lucan, but more sparingly used by Virgil; but it is some lively and apt description, dressed in such colours of speech, that it sets before your eyes the absent object, as perfectly and more delightfully than nature. So then, the first happiness of the poet's imagination is properly invention, or finding of the thought; the second is fancy, or the variation, driving or moulding of that thought, as the judgement represents it proper to the subject; the third is elocution, or the art of clothing and adorning that thought so found and varied, in apt, significant and sounding words: the quickness of the imagination is seen in the invention, the fertility in the fancy, and accuracy in the expression."

What is the proper subject of heroic poetry, according to Dryden? How does this differ from Milton's perspective in Paradise Lost? (Think in particular of the second invocation he makes at the beginning of book nine.)
What is the proper wit of heroic poetry, according to Dryden? What imaginative skills must the heroic poet have to achieve this? To what extent, in your opinion, is Milton successful in such attempts?

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele


Note that these papers are authored by Joseph Addison, although The Spectator was a joint effort between Addison and Steele. Addison went on to write 18 papers on Paradise Lost. What does this suggest?

Spectator no. 267 (1712) participates in an ongoing debate over whether or not PL is an epic (heroic) poem. Like Pope, in An Essay on Criticism, Addison has recourse to the rules, especially those set out by Aristotle. What are the principle elements of the epic that Addison discusses?

Throughout, Addison compares Milton's work to The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. What does this reveal about these three poems? Conversely, what does this say about Addison's view of PL?

"Milton's Subject was still greater than either of the former; it does not determine the Fate of single Persons or Nations, but of a whole Species. The united Powers of Hell are joined together for the Destruction of Mankind,which they effected in Part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence it self interposed. The principal Actors are Man in his greatest Perfection, and Woman in her highest Beauty" (505).

What does Addison identify as "greatness" in PL? How does this "greatness" compare with that identified by Dryden, above?

Addison claims that there is a magnificence in every part of PL that far excels an action taken from "any pagan system." What does this suggest about the Christian worldview of Milton's (and succeeding generations') society?

"But as for Milton, he had not only a very few Circumstances upon which to raise his Poem, but was also obliged to proceed with the greatest Caution in every Thing that he added out of his own Invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the Restraints he was under, he has filled his Story with so many surprising incidents, which bear so close analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate Reader, without giving Offence to the most scrupulous" (505)

What risks does Addison allude to?


In Spectator no. 279, Addison claims that Milton excels most epic poets in his ability to invent proper sentiments to each character and circumstance. He especially admires the treatment of those characters "out of nature." What does Addison mean by sentiments? Why are characters "out of nature" more challenging? What does Milton achieve, according to Addison?

Note Addison's discussion of the "natural" and the "sublime" sentiments -- proper for epic poetry -- and the "affected and unnatural" or the "mean and vulgar" sentiments. Where is Milton most successful? Where does he fail?

Samuel Johnson


This is part of Johnson's great critical achievement, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781), where one of the best critics of the age combined biography with a judicious (with notable exceptions) literary evaluation.

This selection opens with a brief biographical passage describing Milton's early work as a tutor. What does this suggest about Milton's character that is important to PL? What does Johnson say about other biographers of Milton, and how does he differ? What does his digression on education reveal about Johnson's values? What does it reveal about the nature of virtue?

When Johnson does examine PL, he follows the pattern of Addison and evaluates the poem according to Aristotelian elements of epic. How does his evaluation of the parts differ? Where do they agree? From his description of the epic poet, what characteristics are necessary for his/her success?

"It contains the history of a miracle, of Creation and Redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of the Supreme Being; the probable therefore is marvellous, and the marvellous is probable . The substance of the narrative is truth; and as truth allows no choice, it is like necessity, superior to rule" (719)

What are the implications of Johnson's statement above?

On page 719, Johnson discusses the problem of the epic hero in PL. What objections does Johnson answer in order to retain the heroic quality of PL? To what extent do you agree with Johnson?

"Splendid passages, containing lessons of morality, or precepts of prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this poem, that as it admits no human manners till the Fall, it can give little assistance to human conduct" (719-20). Johnson later suggests that human passions do not enter paradise. These, ultimately, constitute the greatest faults of this otherwise peerless poem (721-724). To what extent do you agree or disagree with these criticisms?


"The characteristic quality of this poem is sublimity" (720). What does Johnson mean by this term? Compare this with Addison's use of the term. According to Johnson, how does Milton achieve this sublimity in PL?

"Of his moral sentiments it is hardly praise to affirm that they excel those of all other poets; for this superiority he was indebted to his acquaintance with the sacred writings. The ancient epic poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very unskilful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from their works with a greater degree of active or passive fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few precepts of justice, and none of mercy" (720).

How does Milton's epic differ from the Ancient epics? What virtues does Johnson imply the reader will acquire from PL? How?

Note Johnson's hesitation in criticizing Milton: "for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honour of our country?" (721). What does this tell us about literary national reputation? What does this tell us about Milton?

Note Johnson's focus on Adam (719, 721). What does he value? What does he miss? How do you respond to Johnson's claim that readers have no character to identify with?

On page 724, Johnson offers a justification of rhyme in English verse , while not denying the greatness (operative adjective) of Milton's verse. Compare Johnson's claims with Milton's regarding rhyme. What does Johnson see as the limitations of Milton's verse?

"His work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first" (725). Comment.


Consider the act of criticism as it is exemplified in the essays of Addison and the excerpt from Johnson's book. Compare and contrast the style of Dryden, Addison and Johnson. Compare and contrast the objectives of each selection. What do these works tell us about eighteenth-century literature? What did the era value in PL?

Based on these writing, how would you characterize heroic literature? How would you describe its importance to the eighteenth century?

Recall Pope's Essay on Criticism. To what extent do these selections exemplify the ideals he articulated?

Class Exercise

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