Epic Characteristics of Milton's Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost is one of the finest examples of the epic tradition in all of literature. In composing this extraordinary work, John Milton was, for the most part, following in the manner of epic poets of past centuries: Barbara Lewalski notes that Paradise Lost is an "epic whose closest structural affinities are to Virgil's Aeneid . . . "; she continues, however, to state that we now recognize as well the influence of epic traditions and the presence of epic features other than Virgilian. Among the poem's Homeric elements are its Iliadic subject, the death and woe resulting from an act of disobedience; the portrayal of Satan as an Archillean hero motivated by a sense of injured merit and also as an Odyssean hero of wiles and craft; the description of Satan's perilous Odyssey to find a new homeland; and the battle scenes in heaven. . . . The poem also incorporates a Hesiodic gigantomachy; numerous Ovidian metamorphoses; an Ariostan Paradise of Fools; [and] Spenserian allegorical figures (Sin and Death) . . . . (3)

There were changes, however, as John M. Steadman makes clear:

The regularity with which Milton frequently conforms to principles of epic structure make his occasional (but nevertheless fundamental) variations on the epic tradition all the more striking by contrast. The most important departures from epic decorum--the rejection of a martial theme, and the choice of an argument that emphasizes the hero's transgression and defeat instead of celebrating his virtues and triumphs--are paradoxically conditioned by concern for the ethical and religious decorum of the epic genre. On the whole, Milton has retained the formal motifs and devices of the heroic poem but has invested them with Christian matter and meaning. In this sense his epic is . . . something of a "pseudomorph"--retaining the form of classical epic but replacing its values and contents with Judeo-Christian correlatives. (Epic and Tragic Structure . . . 20)

Steadman goes on to defend Milton's changes in the form of the epic, saying that "such revaluations are not unusual in the epic tradition; they were in fact inevitable" (20).

It is important, before continuing with an examination of Paradise Lost and its epic characteristics and conventions (specifically, those in Book I), to review for a moment exactly what an "epic" is. Again, according to Lewalski, "Renaissance critics generally thought of epics as long poems treating heroic actions or other weighty matters in a high style, thereby evoking awe or wonder" (12).

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Today's definition does not differ; the following summary of characteristics and conventions of the epic is taken from Thrall and Hibbard's A Handbook to Literature, wherein they write that an epic is "a long narrative POEM in elevated STYLE presenting characters of high position in a series of adventures which form an organic whole through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions and through their development of EPISODES important to the history of a nation or race." Common characteristics include

The hero is a figure of heroic stature, of national or international importance, and of great historical or legendary significance; (2) The setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe; (3) The action consists of deeds of great valor or requiring superhuman courage; (4) Supernatural forces--gods, angels, demons--interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to time; (5) a STYLE of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used; and (6) the epic poet recounts the deeds of his heroes with objectivity. (174-76)

There are also a number of common devices or CONVENTIONS used by most epic poets: ". . . the poet opens by stating his theme, invokes a Muse to inspire and instruct him, and opens his narrative 'in medias res'--in the middle of things--giving the necessary EXPOSITION in later portions of the epic; he includes catalogues of warriors, ships, armies; he gives extended formal speeches by the main characters; and he makes frequent use of the EPIC SIMILE" (176). The epic simile is "an elaborated comparison. This type differs from an ordinary SIMILE in that it is more involved, more ornate, and is a conscious imitation of the Homeric manner. The secondary object or picture is developed into an independent aesthetic object, an IMAGE which for the moment excludes the primary object with which it is compared" (176).

With this as background, it is now possible to trace the epic elements present in Book I of Paradise Lost rather easily. That all of those six characteristics noted above are present and demonstrable is certain; it is equally certain that it is through the manipulation of some of these epic characteristics and conventions that Milton offers to the reader a number of the most controversial and interesting questions and situations in the poem.

One of the most formidable problems that the reader must face is that of hero; exactly who is the epic hero in the poem? Steadman notes that for many readers, Milton's devil is a much stronger character than his God, and his image of Hell far more forceful than his picture of Heaven. From such subjective impressions as these they infer (wrongly) that the Hell-scenes must be more 'sincere' than the descriptions of Heaven. They conclude, with Dryden, that Satan must be the real 'hero' of Paradise Lost (Milton's 27); it is not to Satan, clearly, notes Steadman, that the mantle of hero falls; "in the language of Renaissance criticism, Adam--the central figure in the poem--is clearly the 'epic person' or 'primary hero'" (viii). Going a step further, Steadman also remarks that, "in supplying Satan with many of the conventional attributes of the epic hero, Milton indirectly censures the epic tradition for celebrating vice as heroic virtue. . . . Milton relies on a 'reductio ad absurdum' to discredit a spurious conception of heroism" (39).

Francis C. Blessington adds an interesting note to the discussion when she calls Satan not a classical hero but a classical villain:

Satan is made the archetype of the sophistical rhetoric, the shallow egotism, and the destructive pride, the vices of the classical epic as well as of the classical world. In addition, he is the perversion of classical heroic virtues. He often begins by resembling a victim, sometimes even a perversion of that . . . . [He is] not a classical hero but a classical villain who unheroically defeats creatures far below him in stature. (18)

Steadman would concur:

In the course of Milton's epic his fallen archangel conceives and executes an enterprise of conquest and destruction closely resembling that of the conventional epic hero. Nevertheless, for a seventeenth-century Protestant, this apparently heroic exploit should have fitted into a familiar ethical category, a pattern already delineated and condemned by theologians in their discussions of pagan virtue.

Besides preoccupying Luther and Calvin, this subject had also engaged Paolo Sarpi and Richard Humfrey. These authors had advanced the following charges against the ancient Gentiles:

In their deeds of valor and virtuous acts, they sought their own glory instead of God's. However heroic such works might appear, they were performed for a bad end and were therefore sinful. The ancient Gentiles were only superficially virtuous, for they lacked inward sanctity. They sought their reward on earth rather than in Heaven, pursuing worldly renown rather than celestial glory. Their religion tended to fill man with pride by persuading him that he was naturally virtuous. Their teachings incited him to revenge rather than to patience. (Milton's . . . 211-12)

That Milton wanted his readers to be forced to face the problem of Satan seeming heroic is certain. Satan is, after all, an angel. He was a mighty angel in Heaven. In order for us to see the power of God, it is necessary that Satan also be powerful. It is important that Satan, a parody of God, be viewed as an eloquent, bold being, one possessing superhuman strength, extraordinary martial prowess, fortitude, and other attributes--otherwise, what message is there to us? But Milton would also expect his readers to perceive fact from fancy; he would expect us to see through Satan's seeming greatness to his core of evil and pride and petty acts of revenge. That is, after all, part of the test. If we perceive Satan's real villainy, we indeed show ourselves sufficient.

The next three characteristics of the epic listed above are hardly items of debate. The setting is indeed vast in scope, ranging from Heaven to Hell and to the Earth. The action surely consists of deeds of great valour requiring superhuman courage. And there are supernatural forces (gods, angels, and demons) at work throughout the poem. One question may occur in regard to the second of these: is it valour and courage that Satan and his followers showed in fighting the War in Heaven with God? Of course, we may have a bit of trouble thinking of Satan as showing courage and valour. But it may be the words themselves and modern connotations connected with them that cause the difficulty. When examined more closely, there seems to be little difficulty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, valour means "the quality of mind which enables a person to face danger with boldness or firmness; courage or bravery, especially as shown in warfare or conflict"; courage is defined as "that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking." Satan most certainly may be said to fit these descriptions. The OED provides an even more appropriate and interesting definition of courage dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries, one in which courage meant "anger, wrath; haughtiness, pride . . . ."

Another of the characteristics of the epic, the use of an elevated style, may also surely be acknowledged in Paradise Lost:

. . . Milton . . . needed a style that could at once invoke and revamp the classical tradition. I shall not discuss the controversies over Milton's 'Latinate' style but only point out some things that have not been said but which help to give the impression of a classical style in Paradise Lost. Milton's method of elevating the language is the common one suggested by Aristotle: vary, within reason, the mode of normal speech by using unfamiliar words, figures, unusual forms and spellings, and, most of all, metaphors. (Blessington 78)

There were (and are) those, of course, such as William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and others, who censured Milton's style. To them, Christopher Ricks responded with the following:

That his [Milton's] style astonishes is itself some cause of surprise. The epic is of all literary kind the most dignified, the most concerned to fulfil expectation rather than to baffle or ignore it. . . . [H]e must combine two fervours: a heroic dedication to tradition; and a heroic dedication to himself, a confidence in his own greatness which will prevent his suffocating under the weight of a great tradition. (22-23)

Surely it was necessary for Milton to approach his work with a great sense of decorum, both out of respect for its epic tradition and our of respect for its grand subject.

The final characteristic of the traditional epic noted above is the objectivity of the poet. In Milton's case, one would be hard pressed to argue that he was able to maintain that stance, though William G. Riggs tries:

It should be clear that for Milton it is the poet's submission to the voice of his muse, to divine inspiration, which ultimately distinguishes the soaring creation of Paradise Lost from an act of blasphemous pride. Milton does not, however, present the invocation of a heavenly muse as his only defense against presuming too much. Through the narrative he remains sensitive to the relationship between himself as poet and his subject; he examines every implication of his creative act with a care which suggests a fear of self-delusion. While he insists on the pious intentions of what he undertakes, he never neglects to expose the satanic aspect of his poetic posture. (63-64)

E. M. W. Tillyard has a much different reaction to the poet in Paradise Lost. In remarking on emotion in Milton's poetry, Tillyard comments, regarding Raphael's speeches,
this is indeed angelic speech, and through it Milton conveys without strain or reservation his entire belief in the unity of creation and the informing power of God that both makes and preserves it. . . . Whatever we may think about Milton's direct descriptions of God, he does when writing of God's works make us feel, as no other English poet could, their glorious diversity, their order, their dependence on their creator who made and fosters them by the constant pressure of his inexhaustible power. (142-44)

Surely this is not a description of a detached, objective poet. Arnold Stein is perhaps even more forceful in his comments regarding the poet in the poem: The poet we may see in the poem at this point is the figure of himself Milton could hardly have concealed had he wished to: that of the author whose representation includes his judgment. . . . The figure of the poet does not obtrude but still is present substantially, answerable to the literary and philosophical questions addressed first to the dramatized character who speaks, and through him to the 'living intellect' who creates and guides. . . . Throughout we know that behind the narrator there is a man with a personal history, which also enters the poem. (138-39)

C. S. Lewis puts it another way:

. . . every poem has two parents--its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. . . . The matter inside the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form it becomes really original, really the origin of great work. (3)

In addition to the epic characteristics of Paradise Lost, the so-called epic conventions outlined earlier are also present. Certainly Milton begins by stating his theme: the entire story of salvation is summarized in the opening twenty-six lines, and the purpose of the epic, to "justify the ways of God to men," is stated in line twenty-six. (All references to the poem itself are from Merritt Y. Hughes' edition of the complete works.) Milton also opens his narrative "in medias res"; he begins by asking how Adam and Eve could have fallen. Who could have caused it? And then we meet an already fallen Satan; it is only in Book VI that the War in Heaven is actually described.

Milton also invokes a Muse (lines 1-26) to inspire and instruct him, as was traditional. E. R. Gregory, in his article on the use of the muses in Paradise Lost, discusses the use of Clio as muse and the pairing of Clio and Urania. He includes an examination of associated iconography of the muses in the history of epic poetry.

Other of the conventions are likewise present. Milton carefully includes a catalogue of the fallen angels (lines 376-505). He also provides extended formal speeches by the main characters: see, for example, lines 84-124, 157-91, 242-70, and 622-62 for major speeches by Satan in Book I. It is on the basis of the eloquence and power of those speeches that much of the claim for Satan's position as 'hero' is based.

Finally, Milton makes frequent use of the epic simile. Four major examples are of interest in Book I; they include the simile of the sea monster (lines 192+), the autumnal leaves (lines 300+), the son/sun (lines 594+), and the swarming bees (lines 768+). Linda Gregerson points out that "the Miltonic similes portray knowledge as problematic; they do not suggest we throw away the tools we have and wait for grace as for rain" (137). She continues, saying that the similes do a number of tasks: they "convey real information about the tenor, or locate it in an experiential realm"; they do this by "stimulating the sensual memory," perhaps inducing "in the reader an experience which characterizes the subject, " she adds (138). They also may, she notes, "be proleptic. . . . They often prefigure subsequent events in the story. Thus Satan is compared to Leviathan . . ." (139). The similes, she continues, "put is in training of a sort, give us sometimes a running start and sometimes the edge of the cliff . . ." (140); they "focus attention upon the act of perception itself and make us aware that we are not looking alone . . ." (142), that "we read in the company of those who have read before" (147).

James Whaler, in an oft referenced article regarding the use of animal similes in Paradise Lost, notes that: From Homer on, certain images have been part of the epic poet's inheritance and equipment. Not only has he felt obliged to introduce them somewhere into his work, but to distribute them in the very proportion observed by his predecessors. Beasts, plants, any phenomena used in previous epic simile belonged to him, too, if he could make them at home in a new context. Of course he was free to originate novel images from contemporary events or his own personal experience; but Homer's high precedent, or Vergil's, prescribed the old images as well. Milton's choice of imagery, however, is distinguished from that of other important epic poets of Western Europe by an iron control over, a virtual renunciation of, animal similes. (534)

Whaler comments that Milton "selects an animal image only when the perfect opportunity appears" (545), that Milton "must have felt they had had their day" (538). Whaler goes on to examine, after a lengthy discussion of other epic animal similes, Milton's rare use of such similes, specifically that of the swarming bees:

First, Milton's bees direct our mind's eye to winged creatures of the very size that the spirits . . . are to become. Secondly, they make us contemplate in advance diminutive creatures which, despite their tininess, we have always liked to imagine do expatiate and confer their state-affairs, -- exactly what the infernal assembly is going to do. (551)

As Gregerson had noted, the simile "prefigures" and/or is a reflection of other events that are to come later in the story.

Clearly, then, and in spite of some alterations and modifications, Milton did indeed use classical epic conventions. As Blessington so artfully writes, "Milton built his epic out of those of Homer and Virgil, like a cathedral erected our of the ruins of pagan temples whose remains can still be seen" (xiii).


Works Cited

Blessington, Francis C. Paradise Lost and the Classical Epic. Boston: Routledge, 1979.

Gregerson, Linda. "The Limbs of Truth: Milton's Use of Simile in Paradise Lost." Milton Studies 14 (1980): 135-52.

Gregory, E. R. "Three Muses and a Poet: A Perspective on Milton's Epic Thought."
Milton Studies 10 (1977): 35-64.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford UP, 1942 .

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed.
Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1957. 173-469.

Ricks, Christopher. Milton's Grand Style. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.

Steadman, John M. Epic and Tragic Structure in Paradise Lost. Chicago: U of Chicago
P, 1976.

Milton's Epic Characters: Image and Idol. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P,

Stein, Arnold. The Art of Presence: The Poet and Paradise Lost. Berkeley: U of
California P, 1977.

Thrall, William Flint, and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Rev. by C.
Hugh Holman. New York: Odyssey, 1960.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Studies in Milton. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1951.

Whaler, James. "Animal Simile in Paradise Lost." PMLA 47 (1931): 534-53.

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