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Better than others: Eighteenth century reactionism, elitism, and paradise lost

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Mary J.
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  1. Introduction
  2. The opposition to the crown
    1. The explosion in popularity of pamphlets and newspapers
    2. Leaders forced to acknowledge the consent of the governed
  3. The concept of the 'gentleman's education'
    1. The non practical, rarefied, and abstract nature of an Oxford or Cambridge education
  4. The early eighteenth century reactions to Paradise Lost
    1. Richard Bentley's attack on Pope's 'pretty poem'
    2. The gentleman scholar
  5. Alienating the text from average popular reader
    1. Re-establishment of the stable monarchy
    2. Patrick Hume's annotations on Tonson's edition of Paradise Lost
    3. Evolution of the understanding of scholarship and education
  6. Making Paradise Lost appealing to the 'polite' audience
  7. This push towards literacy
  8. The Romantic rejection of the conservative brand of popular education
  9. Conclusion

The eighteenth-century adoption of Paradise Lost?and its continuing permanent position?into the canon of English ?classics? is a testament to Milton's genius for subtlety and intertextuality. The combination of classical sources, contemporaneous politics, symbolism, sexuality and didactic instruction all had varying degrees of nuance, perfectly suited for the burgeoning field of literary criticism. It is precisely the inaccessibility of Paradise Lost, and the large amount of erudition required to properly understand its influences, which contributed to its popularity. If, as Thomas Vogler observed, ?the perennial goal of historical thought can be seen to be a mode of self-definition in the form of a narrative in which a ?modernity' defines itself over against a past perceived as essentially different,? then Paradise Lost is no exception. The focus of Miltonic scholarship is, to a large extent, a reaction against the previous generation's reverence. One constant, however, is that each generation appreciates the elitism of Milton's greatest work.

[...] In order to adopt (and adapt) Paradise Lost for a modern Augustan audience, Milton was stripped of his democratic and revolutionary leanings, and his dry academic style and classical learning was emphasized, and sum the eighteenth-century trend is the separation of Milton the poet from Milton the prose writer, the bard from the rebel? (Lynch 407). His pamphlets and political tracts were almost forgotten and scarcely read; Milton the man was a poor representative of Enlightenment values. Milton the poet, however, was an amalgam of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman sources. [...]


[...] As the eighteenth century progresses, understanding of scholarship and education evolves in a way that begins to affect the nature of Paradise Lost criticism. Whereas the typical Augustan scholar was a combination of professor, reader, critic, gentleman, and writer, by the late eighteenth century, numerous economic, social, and political changes had accrued which separated these facets into their own entities. These fissures are dramatized as early as the late 1690s, when William Temple and Richard Bentley engaged in the infamous Ancients vs. [...]


[...] This concept of didactic poetry, widely accepted in Pope's day, was beginning to fall out of favor by the end of the eighteenth century: genre [didactic poetry] that, in Addison's eyes, had produced most complete, elaborate and finished Piece of all Antiquity'--Virgil's Georgics- -and that Thomas Tickell could rank ?second to Epic alone' in the hierarchy of poetic forms, became for the Romantics a byword for mediocrity, a violation of the true nature of poetry, or a simple contradiction in terms.?[17] The rise in sentiment against Pope's brand of didactic poetry can be traced back to Joseph Warton's 1756 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, where Pope was demoted from the rank of for producing work the didactic, moral, and satyric kind; and, consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry.?[18] It is no coincidence that Keats writes an ode to Chapman's Homer rather than the Pope's translation, which was more or less the standard translation until well into the 19th century. [...]

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