PARADISE LOST is a rite of participation

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C. S. Lewis defends “Milton’s style as a ritual style.” We should conceive of Paradise Lost as a “rite” of participation. By ritual or rite, Lewis means a religious or solemn ceremony marking an important stage in the life of mankind, namely the Fall.

The grandeur which the poet assumes in his poetic capacity should not arouse hostile reactions. It is for our benefit. He makes his epic a rite so that we may share it; the more ritual it becomes, the more we are elevated to the rank of participants. Precisely because the poet appears not as a private person, but as a Hierophant or Choregus, we are summoned not to hear what one particular man thought and felt about the Fall, but to take part, under his leadership, in a great mimetic dance of all Christendom, ourselves soaring and ruining from Heaven, ourselves enacting Hell and Paradise, the Fall and the repentance.

Lewis says Milton’s ritual style produces “joy or exhilaration,” where the reader, similar to a layman in a liturgical church, gets absorbed in the focus of the rite:

When we are caught up into the experience which a ‘grand’ style communicates, we are, in a sense, no longer conscious of the style. Incense is consumed by being used. The poem kindles admirations which leave us no leisure to admire the poem. When our participation in a rite becomes perfect we think no more of ritual, but are engrossed by that about which the rite is performed; but afterwards we recognize that ritual was the sole method by which this concentration could be achieved. Those who in reading Paradise Lost find themselves forced to attend throughout to the sound and the manner have simply not discovered what this sound and this manner were intended to do. A schoolboy who reads a page of Milton by chance, for the first time, and then looks up and says, ‘By gum!’ not in the least knowing how the thing has worked, but only that new strength and width and brightness and zest have transformed his world, is nearer to the truth than they.

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