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Milton wrote his epic poem “Paradise Lost” taking deliberately inspiration from the epic poems of Virgyl and Homer. As such, it has distingushable features of the epic genre, such as epic similes, an encyclopaedic scope and the characteristic use of blank verse as opposed to rhyming. These may lead critics to consider Milton’s work as having too many digressions from the main plot (a common fault of its Greek counterparts) and as being not very innovative.
On the contrary, this essay will argue that Milton’s decision to approach such an old literary tradition by renewing it according to his contemporary religious and political ideas was extremely bold and, indeed, innovative. Milton’s subject-matter and poetic style are also extremely universal, and yet, they take nothing away from the dramatic story within the poem.
As any respectable epic poem, ‘Paradise Lost’ follows certain conventions, such as having a wealthy amount of information about subjects as varied as religion, politics, astronomy and human psychology. The way this is usually done is through extensive lists and catalogs. Another, much more creative and engaging, way of doing it is through the use of epic similes. For instance, Milton compares the surface of hell to a volcanic landscape, with “liquid fire” and “dusky Air”. The comparison is certainly appropriate as it allows us to form a picture of an abstract concept, such as hell, starting from a concrete landscape of which we have knowledge.
Milton stretches the simile by giving a detailed scientific explanation for the eruption of a vulcano which, at the time, was considered to be caused by a preceding earthquake (“subterranean wind”). While one can argue against the accuracy of such a describtion it is still remarkable the way Milton merges scientific information with poetic unity. The simile flows nicely and gains momentum with the comparison of the vulcano Etna erupting with a body “conceiving Fire”. The language of the passage is also greatly evocative. For instance, the image of “Mineral fury” gives us an idea of the power of the elements and also of the perennial intensity of Hell. Our senses in reading Hell are perturbed by strong visual images of earthquakes and eruptions but also by the “stench”, the “smoak” and the “weight” of the dust in the air. One can conclude that in this case Milton’s use of epic simile is successful as it adds greatly to the plot by enhancing our experience of the narrative. It also paints a vivid and dramatic picture of Hell.
A perhaps less successful epic simile is the one in which Milton compares Satan’s shield to the “moon”. One the one hand, the comparison is appropriate given that Milton tries to portray Satan as a being that encompasses human proportions. However, the comparison is stretched less successfully and less vividly than that of Hell. Again, Milton gives his reader great, cutting-edge insight into modern astronomical theories. The idea of the presence of “new Lands” and orbs in the universe suggests that the earth is not, as commonly believed by Milton’s contmporaries, in the centre of it. For this simile Milton drew inspiration from Galileo’s astronomical theory, having met Galileo during a trip to Florence. In including such a controversial theory within his epic simile Milton shows that he was an extremely bold and innovative writer. However, it can be argued that such a simile does not resemble at all its starting point which was the comparison between Satan’s shield and the moon. It is, therefore, far too “independent of its point of departure”. On the other hand, one can argue that the inclusion of such a detail gives the poem a greater and more universal scope. As suggested, these digressions “contribute… to the inclusiveness of epic”. Moreover, they are typical of Milton’s search for truth in order to explain the very beginning of existence and of good and evil.
Another feature often associated with epic poems is the heroism of certain characters which encompasses human beings. Usually an epic poem will have a central hero, like Ulysse or Achilles, whose deeds and missions determine the dramatic impact of the narrative. In ‘Paradise Lost’ the question of heroism becomes paradoxical. Milton deliberately presents his reader with a more complex picture of what heroism means by having Satan, the villain, embodying the figure of the coragious tragic hero. The description of Satan “with head uplift” and “eyes/ That sparling blazed” echoes the image of Ulysses looking out towards the sea before undertaking his quest. Within the wider context of ‘Paradise Lost’, however, the real hero is supposed to be Jesus Christ, the son of God, who will redeem humanity. Satan is portrayed deliberately alike the old traditional heroes – impressive but sinful. One criticism often directed at Milton is that his presentation of heroism is confused and complicates the narrative of the plot. However, one can argue that Milton takes the concept of heroism a step forward, thus, adding layers of meaning within the narrative.
Finally, Milton’s language being inspired from the Italian and Greek epic poets has also been subject to controversy among scholars. T.S Eliot famously wrote that “Milton writes English like a dead language” and that his use of language is “artificial” and “conventional”. Heroic blank verse was never traditionally used in the English language, hence the controversy. However, Milton’s use of it is hardly monotonous. Take for example Satan’s first speech:
“If thou beest he; but O how fall’n! how changed From him…”
In this passage, Milton avoids creating a merely mechanical pattern by introducing caesuras and harshly interrupting the rhythm of the syntaxt from “if thou beest he” to “but O how fall’n” which vividly portrays Satan’s sense of loss. Moreover, the fact that blank verse resolves at the end of a passage adds a sense of speed and of pressing forward. For instance, in order to resolve the phrase beginning with “Of man’s first disobedience…” the reader has to reach, 5 lines later, the phrase “Sing Heav’nly Muse”. It can be argued that Milton’s regular blank verse keeps the plot moving forward. Had he choose a less metrical way of writing the narrative would have probably been much less effective and dramatic. Another method employed by Milton in order to add lyricism and intensity to his lines is by exploiting the richness of language. His description of Hell is a good example, in which he plays with the reader’s imagination by describing concrete concepts combined with abstract ones, such as “darkness visible” and “burning lake”.
To conclude with, Milton’s use of epic features in writing does not diminish the vividness nor the dramatic impact of the plot within the poem. By contrast, they greatly adds to it while, at the same time, giving a sense of grandeur and universality. In view of the ambitious subject-matter of the poem, I believe that Milton has chosen the most appropriate form of writing to go with the story of the fall of man.