Epic Characteristics in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      The two definitions of epic give us the elements, both of form and style of the epic: “a narrative poem, organic in structure, dealing with great actions and great characters in a style commensurate with the lordliness of its theme, which tends to idealize these characters and actions, and to sustain and embellish its subject by means of episode and amplification”. The epic in general, ancient and modem, may be described as “a dispassionate recital in dignified rhythmic narrative of a momentous theme or action fulfilled by heroic characters and supernatural agencies under the control of a sovereign destiny. The theme involves the political or religious interest of a people or mankind. It commands the respect due to popular tradition or traditional ideals. The poem awakens the sense of the mysterious: the awful, and the sublime; through a perilous crisis it uplifts and calms the strife of frail humanity.”

      In Paradise Lost, we find all the familiar features of the epic such as war, single combats, perilous journeys, beautiful gardens, marvelous buildings, visions of the world and the future, expositions of the structure, of the universe, and scenes in Heaven and in Hell. Yet all these are so transformed that their significance and even their aesthetic appeal are new. The reason is that Milton has grafted his epic manner on to a subject which lies outside the main epic tradition. By taking his subject from the Bible he had to make the machinery of epic conform to a spirit and to a tradition far removed from Virgil. Before him the best literary epic had been predominantly secular, he made it theological, and the change of approach meant a great change of temper and of atmosphere. The old themes are introduced in all their traditional dignity, but in Milton’s hands they take on a different significance and contribute to a different end.

Biblical Theme

      Paradise Lost may properly be classed among the greatest epic poems, though its theme is neither mythical nor historical. The theme of Paradise Lost is biblical and religious. This poem is undoubtedly one of the highest efforts of the poetical genius; and in respect of majesty and sublimity, it is by no means inferior to any known epic poem, ancient or modem. It follows the Greek model of epic poetry. The central event of this epic poem is the fall of man. The subject is derived from the Old Testament; and it is astonishing how, from the few hints given in that scripture, Milton was able to raise so complete and regular a structure in his poem.

      Satan once again impresses us as being fit to be an epic hero. At the very outset in Book II, he is described as being seated on a “throne of royal state” in the midst of great splendor. We are told that from his despair he has been “uplifted beyond hope” and that now he is aspiring to rise even higher. He is insatiate to pursue his war against Heaven even though his war is doomed to fail. He tells his comrades that he has not given up Heaven as lost; and he gives them an assurance that they would rise again to Heaven and would, in fact, appear to be more glorious and more awful than if they had not suffered a fall. In his second speech Satan again impresses us greatly, this time by offering to undertake a hazardous journey in search of the new world created by God. While none of the other fallen angels comes forward to undertake this arduous and dangerous task, Satan is ready to go. He speaks of the royal powers and the royal privileges which he enjoys as their leader and he therefore believes that it is his duty to undertake the task that has been proposed. This certainly raises him in our estimation. He is not even prepared to take a companion with him: “This enterprise none shall partake with me”.

      When the meeting of the fallen angels has come to an end, Satan’s supremacy is described to us in words which heighten our impression of his greatness. In the midst of his infernal peers, he seems to be their “mighty paramount”; he seems to be “alone the Antagonist of Heaven”; he seems to be “no less than Hell’s dread emperor with pomp supreme and God-like imitated state”. Round him at this time are a cluster of fiery seraphim who carry their bright and horrendous weapons. Thus not only has Satan spoken in a tone of self-aggrandizement, but his dignity and majesty have been emphasized by the author also. Of course, this does not mean that Satan is the true epic hero; but this does mean that he has been endowed by Milton with a number of heroic traits.

      Book II, like Book I, has a number of epic similes. Indeed there are as many as ten similes of this kind here. In this kind of simile, a writer starts with a comparison between, say A and B; but the second member grows bigger and bigger until it eclipses the first, with the result that while the comparison is effectively made and the idea conveyed successfully, the attendant imagery seems to be even more important

      One important effect of such similes is to contribute to the grandeur of the poem and thus to heighten its epic character. For instance, the murmur of applause which comes from the fallen angels at the end of Mammon’s speech is compared to the sound of raging winds which have subsided. This simile leads us to imagine hollow rocks, a storm which has been blowing furiously over the ocean all night, a number of tired sailors who have kept watch all night, a boat which now lies anchored in a rocky bay. A little later, the sounds which are heard in a valley when the clouds have dissolved and the sun has begun to shine brightly once again.

      Here again, the comparison does not just end here, but develops into an elaborate and lovely Nature picture. In another comparison, we are made to visualize Satan burning like a comet in the sky. Another simile brings to our minds the fury of Hercules who, in his agony began to uproot the pine-trees of Thessaly and who flung his servant Liches into the ocean. In this way the epic similes, or the long-tailed similes as they are also known, add to the interest of the narrative and enrich the poem.

University Questions

How does Milton fulfill the requirements of an epic poem?
Milton has fallen back on the classical epic to build his narrative. Discuss.
Evaluate Book II of Paradise Lost as an example of the grand epic.

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