The Classical Allusions in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Milton's classical scholarship is well-known. His devotion to the Bible, the Classics and the Italian poetry is known to everybody who has gone through his writings. His literary style was largely molded by the works of the great master poets of the past with whom he was intensely familiar. He did not simply warble "the native wood-notes wild" but had to burn much midnight oil and "outwatch the Bear" night after night in order to get the vast amount of learning of which his Paradise Lost is a living monument. From his very boyhood he was a voracious reader. During his self-imposed seclusion at Horton the poet devoured the classics with amazing acidity and to the detriment of his eyesight. Even after his blindness, he would like to hear the Greek and Latin poets read out to him. It is said that in old age "he could repeat Homer almost all without book".

      Such an extensive and intensive reading of the Classics could not but influence the thoughts and writings of Milton. "When he began to compose Paradise Lost he had the reading of a lifetime behind him. His imagination worked upon an accumulated store, which books, observation, and reflection had contributed in equal proportions. He drew upon this store without conscious distinction of its sources. Not that this was a recollected material, to which the poet had recourse whenever invention failed him; it was identified with himself. His verse flowed from his own soul, but his was a soul which had grown up, nourished with the spoil of all the ages" (Pattison).

      Moreover, being a child of the Renaissance he could not but take lively interest in the classical writers and be thoroughly acquainted with their spirit and thought. It is for this that his writings are so full of classical allusions. Verity justly remarks, "Milton’s allusiveness extends over the whole empire of classical humanity and letters, and to the scholar, his work is full of the exquisite charm of endless reminiscences of and references to, the noblest things that the ancients have thought and said. His language and construction have also been partly affected by his love of the classics." To read Milton’s poetry is to have a fairly good knowledge of classical mythology and classical poets.

      We may quote the following passages from Paradise Lost, Book II, to illustrate Milton’s love of classical allusions:-

"As when Alcides, from Oechaha crowned
With conquest, felt the envenomed robe, and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines,
And Lichas from the top of Oeta threw
Into the Euboic sea"

Again,

"Far less abhorred than these
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore"

      Again attempting to give a graphic picture of the extreme difficulty which Satan had to experience when crossing the shoreless ocean of Chaos, Milton writes:-

"As when a gryphon through the wilderness
With winged course, o'er hill or moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold: so eagerly the Fiend" etc.

      Again in the same connection Milton writes:-

"Harder beset
And more endangered, than when Argo passed
Through Bosporus betwixt the justling rocks;
Or when Ulysses on the larboard shunned
Chaiybolis, and by other whirlpool steered."

      These classical allusions are a chief distinction of Paradise Lost. They not only decorate the poem but also diversify it effectively. Without them Paradise Lost would have been a bald religious poem divested of its poetic charms. Milton’s love of classical literature has made the greatest epic of his life a noble and notable blending of Puritanism and classicism. Upon the simple and severe Hebraic frame of the poem he has engrafted the noblest scion of the tree of Hellenic culture with splendid success, thus making Paradise Lost one of the greatest epic poems in the world’s literature.

      In Paradise Lost, Book-II lines 542-546, 659-661, 943-947, 1017, 1102, and the description of Hell in which the names of various monsters of classical mythology and of the rivers of the Greek Hades occur, illustrate Milton’s fondness for classical allusions.

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