The Epic Form and Paradise Lost

An epic is usually described as a long narrative poem, which is exalted in style and heroic in theme and content. Epics are classified into two categories – “primary” epics and “secondary” epics. Early or primary epics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer are “written versions of oral legends of a tribe or nation.” Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost come under the category of “secondary” or “literary” epic. Primary epics are ancient in their origin and character. Since they were recited or sung orally by bards, who relied on memory and improvisations to produce an evocative effect on their audience, “primary” epics have a spontaneous and free grand style. The poet of the “literary” or “secondary” epic, on the other hand, creates an effect of grandeur by a conscious elevation of his poetic style. Paradise Lost, which deals with the lofty subject of justifying “the ways of God to men,” is well-known for. Milton’s use of grand style.

Published in 1667, Paradise Lost represented for Milton the fulfillment of his two aspirations. For several decades he had wanted to write an epic and had at the same time wanted to recreate the story of the fall of man. To begin with these were to be separate projects as Milton had chosen the tales and adventures of King Arthur to be the subject of his epic. The story of the fall of man was to be treated differently as a tragedy. However, disenchantment about the historicity of Arthur gradually led to the abandonment of the plan to write an Arthuriad. Finally for Milton the two projects merged into the writing of an epic which dealt with the tragedy of the fall of man. Milton decided to explore his theme in the form of an epic and this gave him a licence to range over vast tracts of human experience. Geographically, the poem ranges over the entire world and Milton delights in cataloguing the names of various places. Satan’s journey round the Earth in Book IX depicts the names of places presumed to be corners of the earth. Milton supposedly used contemporary atlases, the Bible and Biblical commentaries and several works of classical antiquity for place names and other references.

Milton’s choice of writing an epic was a reflection of the Renaissance notion of hierarchies of being. Poetic genres were ranged in an ascending order starting at the lowest rung from simple lyrics up to the highest, the heroic poem or epic. For Dryden “A heroic poem, truly such is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform.” Spencer’s Faerie Queene, while inspirational for Milton, was more of a romance than an epic. For the seventeenth century, Virgil was the writer whose Aeneid provided a model for emulation. A classical epic would present a heroic tale of adventure, usually a long journey accompanied by fighting and the hero victorious. In order to revise classical epic upon Christian lines Milton needed to re-evaluate the epic hero. Adam is not a warrior like Aenas or Odysseus and this was Dryden’s objection in calling Paradise Lost an epic. For Milton, heroism did not center in military warfare (the theme of classical epics) but was to be found in the spiritual warfare of the active Christian. While Satan’s expedition against mankind might look like a heroic mission at a surface level, a deeper analysis shows that it is self-glorifying and inferior to that which glorifies god. Military valour is devalued in comparison to “suffering for truth’s sake/(which) is fortitude to highest victory” (Bk. XII. 569-70). By such radical reassessments of heroic values, Milton redefines and revises the epic tradition. Some critics argue that for values military and glorious Milton has substituted the domestic and pastoral ones, for the theme of human greatness, divine greatness. With emphasis on the daily chores of Adam and Eve, Milton makes Paradise Lost the first ‘domestic epic’. It is not an epic in the traditional sense of the word because Milton does not follow the conventions and norms of a classical epic.

However, Milton does follow some of the conventions of a traditional epic. For instance, the Supernatural intervention is a part of the epic tradition where gods and goddesses intervene in human actions either validating them or disapproving of them. The Invocation to the Muse is another such convention which Milton follows. He invokes Urania to inspire and illuminate him so that he can write good poetry. Beginning the story in ‘media res’ (‘in the middle’) is also an epic convention which Milton follows closely. After the statement of his theme and invocation to the Muse in Book I, Milton begins the narration in the middle of the action. Chronologically the story begins in Book V. Milton’s use of epic similes, which form an integral part of this grand style, is another epic convention that he follows. Milton invests his poem with complexity and richness of meaning through his use of epic similes.

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