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- Jun 2016
Everyone is aware of that risk, although it is usually not acknowledged with the explicitness that one finds in the opening sentence of Raymond Waddington's essay on books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lost. "Few of us today," Waddington writes, "could risk echoing C. S. Lewis's condemnation of the concluding books of Paradise Lost as an 'untransmuted lump of futurity"' (9). The nature of the risk that Wad- dington is about not to take is made clear in the very next sentence, where we learn that a generation of critics has been busily demonstrating the subtlety and complexity of these books and establishing the fact that they are the product of a controlled poetic design. What this means is that the kind of thing that one can now say about them is constrained in advance, for, given the present state of the art, the critic who is concerned with maintaining his or her professional credentials is obliged to say something that makes them better. Indeed, the safest thing the critic can say (and Waddington proceeds in this es- say to say it) is that, while there is now a general recognition of the excellence of these books, it is still the case that they are faulted for some deficiency that is in fact, if properly understood, a virtue. Of course, this rule (actually a rule of thumb) does not hold across the board. When Waddington observes that "few of us today could risk," he is acknowledging, ever so obliquely, that there are some of us who could. Who are they, and how did they achieve their special status? Well, obviously C. S. Lewis was once one (although it may not have been a risk for him, and if it wasn't why wasn't it?), and if he had not already died in 1972, when Waddington was writing, presumably he could have been one again. That is, Lewis's status as an authority on Renaissance literature was such that he could offer readings with- out courting the risk facing others who might go against the professional grain, the risk of not being listened to, of remaining unpublished, of being unattended to, the risk of producing something that was by definition-a definition derived from prevailing institutional conditions-without me
on the necessity of discovering virtue in literary work as a professional convention of our discipline.
This is a really interesting and useful passage for my first year lectures