Over on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange, some participants apply the following theoretical approach to the interpretation of fiction:

Does this approach to literature have a name? Has it been studied? What is its history? Is it purely a ‘folk theory’ or does it have an academic counterpart? Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory purports to give a “reasonably comprehensive account of modern literary theory” but does not mention it.

The earliest work I know that takes a similar approach is ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes’ (1911) by Ronald Knox, but Knox and the other early participants in the ‘Sherlockian game’ were clear that it was to be played with tongue in cheek:

The rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1946). Unpopular Opinions, p. 7. London: Gollancz.

1 Answer 1


Bentley’s edition of Milton

In 1732, Richard Bentley published an edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bentley was master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and an eminent classical scholar, whose editions of the works of the Roman poets Horace and Terence had been well received. But his edition of Paradise Lost was a disaster, against which many pamphlets were published in reply, disputing and refuting Bentley’s editorial remarks, and pouring a torrent of sarcasm and mockery on his learned head. His biographer James Monk wrote:

[Bentley] took up the text of Paradise Lost with the determination of not only detecting every slip of language in a poem whose author was unable to revise what he had dictated in his moments of inspiration, but also of noting for rejection all the instances of bad taste or incorrect imagery that his lynx-eyed criticism could discover. For a person who was neither a poet, nor possessed of poetical taste, to venture upon such a task, was no common presumption: but it would have been well had he stopped here. Wishing that Paradise Lost should be read in his edition agreeably to his notions of a perfect poem, he proposed, in every case, his own alterations of Milton’s verses, printed in the margin. For such an undertaking, which hardly any endowments or acquirements could justify, Bentley wanted almost every qualification. He not only was destitute of poetical talent, but had contracted an aversion to the rapturous flights of genius and glowing language which distinguish the divine poem. Scarcely ever was he able to sympathize with the author; and was, besides, frequently ignorant of his allusions and the source of his phrases and imagery. Of the works of the Italian poets, to which Paradise Lost is greatly indebted, Bentley knew nothing: and with the writers of romance, who had been the delight of Milton’s earlier years, and from whom many of his allusions are drawn, he was equally unacquainted.

James Henry Monk (1833). The Life of Richard Bentley, volume 2, pp. 310–311. London: Rivington.

The edition of Milton earned Bentley a drubbing in Pope’s Dunciad:

Thy mighty scholiast, whose unwearied pains
Made Horace dull, and humbled Milton’s strains.
Turn what they will to verse, their toil is vain,
Critics like me shall make it prose again.

Alexander Pope (1743). The Dunciad, book IV, lines 211–214.

In this answer, I’m going to draw attention to four significant features of Bentley’s notes on Paradise Lost, and then discuss how they relate to the question.

Canon determination

Bentley divides the text into the canonical parts, which he assigns to Milton, and interpolations which he supposes to have been introduced by an anonymous editor:

Our celebrated author, when he compos’d this poem, being obnoxious to the Government, poor, friendless, and, what is worst of all, blind with a Gutta Serena, could only dictate his Verses to be writ by another. Whence it necessarily follows, That any Errors in Spelling, Pointing, nay even in whole Words of a like or near Sound in pronunciation, are not to be charg’d upon the Poet, but on the Amanuensis. […]

But more Calamities, than are yet mention’d, have happen’d to our Poem: for the Friend or Acquaintance, whoever he was, to whom Milton committed his Copy and the Overseeing of the Press, did so vilely execute that Trust, that Paradise, under his Ignorance and Audaciousness, may be said to be twice lost. […]

For this suppos’d Friend, (call’d in these notes the Editor), knowing Milton’s bad Circumstances […] thought he had a fit Opportunity to foist into the Book several of his own Verses,† without the blind Poet’s Discovery.

Richard Bentley (1732). Milton’s Paradise Lost, Preface. London: Jacob Tonson.

† Here and elsewhere Bentley uses ‘verse’ with the meaning ‘line of verse’.

I doubt that Bentley was serious in putting forward this story, and I find it more likely that it was intended to be a transparently humorous fiction by which Bentley could abuse the text of Paradise Lost as much as he pleased, under the pretense that he was only excising the interpolations of the supposed “Editor” and restoring the true intentions of Milton. But the joke, if it was a joke, misfired—the Preface gave readers the impression of being a piece of mean-spirited mockery of a much-beloved author, and no doubt this contributed in large part to the vehemence of the replies to Bentley.

Documentary approach

Bentley treats Paradise Lost as if it is an attempt to document a consistent fictional universe, so that departures from internal consistency are mistakes that must be corrected.

  1. Does Heaven have a vault?

    Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav’n.

    John Milton (1667). Paradise Lost, book I, line 669.

    What is the Vault of Heaven? Hell needed a Vault, to inclose all the Damned, and hinder their Eruption; often mentioned by our Author […] But Heaven here meant, the Habitation of God and Angels, far above the Sphere of Fixt Stars, was never describ’d as Vaulted, not once so hinted by Milton. To what purpose a Vault there? from the imagin’d Soil, the Plain of Heaven, the Ethereal Highth extends in Infinitum. […] But allowing that these Heavens were vaulted, yet if the Devils hurl’d toward that Vault, they hurl’d quite beyond the Mark: for their Enemies did not reside in the Vaults, but on the Plains of Heaven.

    Richard Bentley (1732). Milton’s Paradise Lost, note to book I, line 669. London: Jacob Tonson.

  2. Is Hell above or below the Abyss?

    T’ whom Satan turning boldly, thus. Ye Powers
    And Spirits of this nethermost Abyss

    Milton, II.968–969.

    ’Twas hard, if not impossible, in our Poet’s Condition, not sometimes to forget, and make his Fictions inconsistent, against the natural and establish’d Rule,

    Denique sit quidvis, simplex duntaxat et unum.

    We have here, and v. 956, The nethermost Abyss; but He makes not that the nethermost, but all Hell below it, as Chaos tells Satan, v. 1003.

                                                    First Hell
    Your Dungeon stretching far and wide beneath.

    And Belzebub owns, that the Abyss was higher than Hell, v. 403.

                    Or steer his airy flight
    Upborn over the vast Abrupt.

    And Satan, when he first left Hell and took his flight into the Abyss, he aims upwards, not downwards;

                    And in the surging Smoke
    Uplifted spurns the ground.

    Bentley, note to II.969.

    † “Be your subject what it will, let it be merely simple and uniform.” Horace, De Arte Poetica 1.23. Translated by C. Smart and Theodore Alois Buckley.

  3. Is the Sun conveyed on wheels?

    Soon as they forth were come to open sight
    Of day-spring, and the Sun, who scarce up risen
    With wheels yet hov’ring o’re the Ocean brim

    Milton, V.138–140.

    Who can blame Wheels, when both old and new Poets figure the Sun riding in a Chariot? but yet an Author should be consistent with himself. Milton in the rest of his Book considers the Sun philsophically, as a Globe of Lights, sometimes as the Center of his System, sometimes as a Planet moving round our Earth.

    Bentley, note to V.140.

These are highbrow equivalents of the Klingon forehead question, and they derive from a similar reluctance to engage with a work of fiction on multiple levels simultaneously. In Star Trek, anything we see on screen is at the same time an object in the fictional world, and also an artefact of the production process. In Paradise Lost, nouns like “Vault”, “Abyss”, and “Wheels” can be at the same time concrete objects or places in the narrative, and also metaphors.

Extended universe

Paradise Lost makes frequent reference to Greek and Roman myths, and Bentley treats the targets of the allusions as if they formed an extended universe with which Paradise Lost needs to be consistent.

  1. Did Medusa stand guard in Hell?

    But fate withstands, and to oppose th’ attempt
    Medusa with Gorgonian terror guards
    The Ford

    Milton, II.610–612.

    If the Author gave it thus, it’s a slip of human Inattention. Medusa one of the Gorgons, never did such work in Hell: Her snaky petrifying Head was fix’d in the Shield of Minerva.

    Bentley, note to II.611.

    It is hard to resist the riposte, “but Medusa was fixed there only after Perseus beheaded her, hence long after the events of Paradise Lost”, but this would be conceding to Bentley his assumption that these two stories are part of the same extended universe.

  2. How many Furies are there?

                            black it stood as Night,
    Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell

    Milton, II.670–671.

    Another spurious interpolation. The modern Poets make a pleasure a thousand Furies: not so the ancients, when they introduce them as Persons, but confine them to Three. But to make one Person Death to be as fierce as Ten Furies together, smells of trivial and common Chat.

    Bentley, note to II.671.

  3. Did Ulysses have Scylla on his left, or Charybdis?

    Or when Ulysses on the Larbord shunnd
    Charybdis, and by th’ other whirlpool steard

    Milton, II.1019–1020.

    This Larbord in Heroic Stile is abominable. Let Dryden disparage his Virgil with Larbord and Starbord: I am glad, that I can clear Milton from this vile Distich. For they that will suspect his Affectation, will never charge him with Want of Letters. The Story is told in Homer, whom our Poet had all by Heart. Ulysses sailing homewards from his Mistress Circe through the Tyrrhene and Sicilian Seas, had not Charybdis on the Larbord, his Left Hand, but on his Right. The Editor misled himself from a Verse in Virgil,

    Laevum implacata Charybdis obsidet

    but Aeneas steered a contrary Course to Ulysses, so that what was at his Left Hand, was at Ulysses’s Right.

    Bentley, note to II.1019.

    † “the left is given to pitiless Charybdis” Virgil, Aeneid III.420. Translated by Theodore C. Williams.

Difficulty with figuration

Bentley clearly has trouble with figurative language, and the further the poem gets from the literal, the more trouble he has. He has no trouble understanding simile, though he sometimes objects to it. He has more difficulty with metaphor, and we have already seen above how the literal use of a word like “Vault” can prevent him from understanding another use of the same word as a metaphor. But he is all at sea when it comes to figures like hypallage, metonymy, and paradox. I’ll give one example of each of these.

  1. Hypallage is an exchange of the relation between words, for example, an adjective that properly applies to one noun is moved to another (a transferred epithet).

    A multitude, like which the populous North
    Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass
    Rhene† or the Danaw‡, when her barbarous Sons
    Came like a Deluge on the South

    Milton, I.351–354.

    † Rhine. ‡ Danube.

    Here it is not the loins that are frozen, but the North.

    I suspect the following five Verses to be spurious. After he has compared the Devils for number to the Cloud of Locusts that darken’d all Ægypt, as before to the Leaves that cover the Ground in Autumn, ’tis both to clog and to lessen the Thought, to mention here the Northern Excursions, when all Human Race would be too few. Besides, the diction is faulty: Frozen Loins are improper for Populousness.

    Bentley, note to I.351.

  2. Metonymy is a figure whereby one thing stands for another that is closely associated with it, for example, “crown” for “monarch”, or “sail” for “ship”.

    Thither came Uriel, gliding through the Eeven
    On a Sun beam

    Milton, IV.555–556.

    Here evening stands for the sky at evening.

    I never heard but here, that the Evening was a Place or Space to glide through. Evening implies Time, and he might with equal propriety say, Came gliding through Six a clock.

    Bentley, note to IV.555.

  3. Paradox is a figure which appears at first to be self-contradictory, challenging the reader to resolve it.

    A Dungeon horrible on all sides round
    As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
    No light, but rather darkness visible
    Serv’d only to discover sights of woe

    Milton, I.61–64.

    Darkness visible and Darkness palpable are in due place very good Expressions: but the next Line makes visible here a flat Contradiction. Darkness visible will not serve to discover sights of Woe through it, but to cover and hide them. Nothing is visible to the Eye, but so far as it is Opake, and not seen through; nor by transmitting the Rays, but by reflecting them back. To come up to the Author’s Idea, we may say thus,

    No Light, but rather a transpicuous Gloom

    Gloom is equivalent to Darkness, yet so as to be in some measure transparent.

    Bentley, note to I.63.


Bentley’s notes on Milton don’t correspond in every respect to the nameless literary theory described in the question, but there are substantial overlaps, and I think some of his remarks are recognizable as things that might have been written by science fiction fans. It was Bentley’s ill luck to have a chosen a text which was singularly unsuited to this approach: Milton’s inconsistent world-building, his mixture of Biblical and mythical reference, his flexible grammar, and frequent use of complex figuration, are all unsuited to the documentary approach.

The reaction to Bentley shows, I think, a plausible reason why the theory remains nameless and unstudied. That is: his approach to Paradise Lost is regarded as deriving not from a theory, but from a want of skill and taste:

Bentley was born in the year 1662, and he brought with him into the world, like most men born near that date, a prosaic mind; not did all his immense study of the classics avail to confer on him a true appreciation of poetry. While he dealt with the classical poets he was comparatively safe, for in dealing with these a prosaic mind is not so grave a disqualification as a dithyrambic mind; and Bentley had lived with the ancients till he understood them as no one will ever understand them who brings to their study a taste formed on the poetry of Elizabeth’s time or ours. But that jealous deity which loves, Herodotus tells us, to strike down towering things, put it into his heart to invade a literature with which he was ill acquainted. […] Here was a man of true and even colossal genius, yet you see in matters poetical the profoundest knowledge of the classics profited him nothing, because he had been born without the organs by which poetical excellence is achieved. And so are most men born without them; and the quickening and refining influences special to literature run off them like water off a duck’s back. […] True, we are not all so easily found out as Bentley, because we have not Bentley’s intrepid candour. There is a sort of savage nobility about his firm reliance on his own bad taste: we on the other hand usually fit our judgments not to the truth of things nor even to our own impressions of things, true or false, but to the standard of convention.

A. E. Housman (1892). Introductory Lecture, Delivered before the Faculties of Arts and Laws and of Science in University College, October 3, 1892, p. 12. Cambridge University Press.

Moreover, his blunders with regard to Milton were regarded as so egregious that they cast doubt on his other scholarship:

[Bentley’s edition of Milton] was notoriously lamentable. Yet in what, we may ask, did it differ from those in which Bentley was held to have acquitted himself magnificently? And if Bentley was incapable of appreciating the poetry of Milton, how can we accept his verdict upon Horace and Homer?

Virginia Woolf (1925). ‘Dr. Bentley’. In The Common Reader, p. 248. London: Hogarth Press.

What academic could risk taking Bentley’s implicit theory of literature seriously, with this kind of denunciation in store for them?

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