Epic Elements in Paradise Lost Book 9

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Concept of an Epic

      An epic is generally understood to be a long serious narrative poem about a hero and his heroic companions, often set in a past that is imagined as greater than the present. The action is usually simple but it is amplified by allusions and figurative language that give it cosmic significance. The style is appropriately elevated to the greatness of the deeds and certain conventions are usually observed.

Milton’s Subject: Different from Conventional Epics

      Milton’s Paradise Lost may be called a ‘Christian epic’ for his subject is the tragic fall of Man from grace because of his disobedience of God. The conventional epics dealt with heroes of physical courage and bravery. In Lines 1-47 of Book IX of Paradise Lost, Milton elaborates on the choice of his subject and asserts that it is eminently suitable for epic poetry, being

Not less but more heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespoused used;
Or Neptune’s ire or Juno’s, that so long
Perplexed the Greek and Cytherea’s son.

Elaborate and Dignified Treatment

      There can hardly be a subject which commands more dignity than Milton’ Paradise Lost. We see the poet discussing its epic possibilities in the opening lines of book IX. The fall of Man, as a theme is certainly more dignified than the wrath of Achilles, which is Homer’s subject in the Iliad, or the wrath of Juno, which is Virgil’s subject in the Aeneid. Man’s incidence to sin and the fortitude with which he is called upon to suffer the consequences of it, says Milton, are more ‘heroic’ than the squabbles that arise from the wrath, or jealousy, of minor gods and heroes. He says also that the merely extended accounts of battles, and even a ‘surgical examination’ of the wounds sustained by knights on fields of slaughter, which constitute the themes of such poems as those by Tasso and Ariosto, have no appeal for him, if it is epic dignity that is sought in a subject. The subject of his choice has both spiritual and moral dignity about it.

      As for elaboration, nothing can be more elaborate than Milton’s treatment of his subject. The biblical story of the creation of the Universe, impressive as it is, extends to about a page; and the account that follows of Adam and Eve in Paradise, the sin of disobedience committed by them, and even the punishment therefore, extends to two further pages. It must be noted that the account is simple, and effective. That is the way of the Bible. Something more about God’s Enemy, Satan, in the form of a serpent, is just scattered in the form of a few line references here and there in the Bible. That too, is eloquent and effective. But, in contrast, the length of Milton’s poem is stupendous. Let us take only his account of the temptation of Eve by the serpent, which is the subject of Book IX. It extends to over four hundred lines of the eloquent poetry. In Milton’s four hundred lines elaborating this important episode, every word vibrates with emotion, and a breathtaking expectancy; and the lines kindle the visual imagination of the reader.

Heroism Depicted

      Heroism, as Emerson defines it, is ‘a military attitude of the soul’ towards all the evil in this world. It is also an exceptional or superhuman quality which, exceptional as it might be, is of significance to all mankind. The celebration of such heroism is the proper sphere of ‘heroic’ or epic poetry. Milton in his poem has no character who is not heroic, in this broad sense. Adam does not indeed show heroic strength; for there is no occasion for it. But he shows heroic fortitude, and a heroic power of love and sacrifice for the object of his love, Eve.

Grand Style

      Contemplating the theme of the Fall of Man, and attaching to it a supreme moral and religious significance, Milton could not help expressing himself ‘grandly’. Since Homer’s time—whose own style has been compared to the movement of a broad-sweeping river-certain “formulas’ fixed epithets, and stereo-typed phrases and locutions” have been taken as the recognized stock-in-trade of all epic poets. Milton employs epic conventions such as beginning his Poem in the middle of the action, depicting a vastness of scale in action, and elaborate battle between formidable adversaries. Two other ‘epic devices’ also he employs, namely invocations to the Muse and the ‘Homeric’ similes. In comparison with the other minor epic tricks referred to, these have certainly contributed to the elevation of his style in the poems. This is because they are not exactly echoes of Homer and Virgil-though one or two of them are even that - but primarily because the poet has infused into them a sincerity and vision that must be regarded as all his own. The ‘epic’ quality of Paradise Lost is established as much by its distinctive and elevated style as by its spacious treatment of a lofty subject.

University Questions

Analysis the epic element in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
Discuss Paradise Lost as an epic with special reference to Book IX.

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