Epic simile refers to detailed comparisons that are built up over a large course of the text throughout several lines as opposed to the function of simile which points out similarities between two dissimilar concepts in a short and simple manner. These are used to add richness to the narrative but more importantly, to transpose loftier ideas into familiar and acceptable notions. Since these require elaborate and detailed comparisons, they are often digressive in nature, i.e, these comparisons tend to deviate from the actual narrative to discuss at length a specific aspect.
Milton was more concerned with the intellectual function of the simile rather than its aesthetic function. For instance, the various comparisons of Satan to an enormous sea beast (I.199-207) or the fallen angels to a swarm of bees (I.768-776)or the description of Satan’s shield to the moon as seen through Galileo’s astronomical glass (I.284-291) seek to help the readers understand the abstract concepts in the form of concrete images. Doing so is an important aspect of the narrator (and by extension Milton’s) task of justifying the ways of God to men as well as Milton’s project of creating a Biblical epic of the scale of the classical epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. The buzzing bees present the image of a filthy, undifferentiated swarm lacking individuality as well as a reduction in their stature just like the reduction in their size, in the mind of the reader. At the same time, they represent a certain kind of wildness and chaos which the fallen angels seek to bring to the world of mankind. The images of sea as well as the swarm of bees portray Hell as a place always in a state of flux and impermanence, in direct contrast to the immutability of Heaven.
Interestingly, Homer, who is credited with the conception of the epic simile,also uses the ‘bee simile’ in his epic, The Iliad. Harding notes that, “Milton wanted his readers to recognize the source of his allusion so that they could compare his version with the original and then judge for themselves how skillfully, and with what new creative insights, he had reworked it” (665).
Thus, while Milton’s use of epic similes present decorative, poetic imagery, they are also suffused with deeper meaning of classical scholarship and serve the larger purpose of providing the reader with a means to make the grand events of cosmic proportion more relatable.