Epic Qualities of Paradise Lost Book 2

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       What is an Epic? An epic is a heroic narrative poem dealing with a single and entire great event and introducing supernatural features. Its language should be simple, perspicuous and sublime, sentiments high and dignified, and the principal characters grand and heroic. The world’s great epics may be brought under two principal heads which may be styled as the Primitive or natural epics and the secondary or artificial epics. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the great Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata belong to the former group; while to the latter class belongs the Æneid, Jerusalem Delivered, Paradise Lost etc Dante’s Divine Comedy forms a class in itself.

      The natural epics grow spontaneously rather than are composed by any individual poet. The vast and vague materials and incoherent and floating traditions which accumulate through centuries round a nation are collected, systematized and given the necessary unity and harmony by some master artist who evolves a beautiful, harmonious and artistic whole out of the chaotic material. It is for this that such an epic contains in it the whole history of a particular nation in the midst of which it grows. An artificial epic is a work of reflection and selection and depends for its success on the choice of the central subject. The natural epic is the true epic and is an important storehouse of our knowledge about a nation’s culture and achievements. But the author of an artificial or literary epic has to depend entirely on his selection of the subject and his own poetic merits. It is for this reason that a literary epic is a greater intellectual achievement than a traditional epic.

      ‘Paradise Lost’ as an epic—its merits and defects—with special reference to Book—II. Millon’s Paradise Lost is not a national epic like the Iliad or the Æneid; nor is it an epic after any of the known types. It is an epic of the whole human species—an epic of our entire planet or indeed of the entire astronomical universe. The vast comprehension of the story, its space, time, character and purpose make it unique among the world epics and fully entitle its author to speak of it as involving

"Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme."

      It is a poetical representation of the historical connection between the created World and the immeasurable and inconceivable Universe of Prehuman Existence. The newly-created Earth with all the newly-created starry depths about it had as yet but two human beings upon it, and these are the persons of the epic. The grand purpose of the epic is to connect, by stupendous imagination, certain events of this pre-supposed Infinite Eternity with the first fortunes of this favored planet and its two human inhabitants. Now the person through the narration of whose acts this connection is established is Satan, the central character of the epic.

      The excellence of an epic depends on the excellence of its action, characters, sentiments and language. If we judge Paradise Lost from each of these standpoints we will find it is scarcely inferior to any of the great world epics.

      The action of a successful epic must be one, entire and great. Homer in order to preserve this unity of action opens his Iliad with the wrath of Achilles and then artfully interweaves in this main action accounts of things and events that relate to it.

      Virgil begins his Æneid with the appearance of Aeneas in the Tyrrhenian Seas, and within the very sight of Italy, the settlement in which was to be the central theme of the epic. Milton in imitation of these great masters, preserves the unity of action in his Paradise Lost by beginning it with the infernal council and the discussions of the fall of man which is the central action of his epic. Just as the incidents which preceded the coming of Aeneas to Latium are related by the hero by way of episode, so the events which led to the banishment of Satan and his followers into hell are described by Raphael in the subsequent Books of Paradise Lost. Had Milton begun with the fight of angels in Heaven the unity of action would have been lost.

      The second quality of the action of an epic is its entirety. The action must be complete in itself, and each succeeding part should logically evolve out of each preceding part. Nothing extraneous should be included, and nothing important should be excluded. The action should proceed from its beginning to its consummation in a regular way. Thus we see in the Iliad the origin of the wrath of Achilles, its progress and its effects on the Greeks and the Trojans, and its final appeasement in the death of Hector. In Æneid, we find the settlement of Aeneas in Italy, its progress and consequences. In Paradise Lost the action is even more regular. The fall of man is plotted in Hell, executed on Earth and punished by Heaven.

      The next qualification of an epic action is its greatness. It should be such as to affect a whole nation of nations and its consequences must be far-reaching. The consequence of the wrath of Achilles was the death of heroes and a quarrel among the gods. Aeneas’s settlement in Itlay led to the foundation of the powerful Roman Empire. The greatness of Milton's actions is unparalleled. It affects not a nation or nation but the entire human species. All the forces of Hell are let loose against man who is too weak to resist the attack, but is ultimately saved through the grace of God and the Messiah. Milton, like Homer and Virgil, extends the duration of his action by diversifying it by suitable inventions and additions. Here he shows greater power than Homer and Virgil who derived their materials from floating traditions and so were quite at liberty to add or alter anything they chose without hurting the religious susceptibility of their readers. But Milton’s case was different. His subject was taken from the Bible and so he had to observe extreme caution in introducing things of his own invention. Again, the traditions which Homer and Virgil had at their disposal were richer; while Milton had to depend only on a few hints from the Book of Genesis. Still, the admirable way in which he has enriched his story without wounding the religious feelings of anybody is simply wonderful and reflects great credit on him. In Book II, the central theme is Satan’s decision to take revenge on God by leading the newly created man into sin. But how beautifully Milton has diversified this slight theme by suitable inventions so that the Book contains over a thousand lines!

      Next to action comes the question of characters. Here the Greek poet far surpasses all his followers. Every god and every king of Homer has got a distinct individuality of his own and his speeches, thoughts and deeds are in wonderful harmony with one another. His Ulysses, Achilles, Diomede, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Paris, Helen, Andromache, etc. are living and individualized characters. His gods also have distinct individualities. Imperious Zeus, proud Hera, warlike Ares, wise Pallas, soft Aphrodite, swift-footed. Hermes are all well-drawn characters. Virgil is far inferior to Homer as a character painter. The limitation which Milton imposed upon himself by the choice of his subject did not allow him to introduce a variety of characters.

      In the second book we get seven characters, in all of whom Satan, Sin and Death, form one group and Moloch, Belial, Mammon and Beelzebub from the other. Satan is simply peerless. His personality and pride, courage and determination overawe all the readers who unconsciously almost love and admire his badness. When he flies through Hell or swims across Chaos we feel that he is a fit person against a fit background—and Death and Demogorgon, Chimeras and Hydras yield precedence to this mighty adversary of God. The hideous Sin and her still more hideous phantom-son are most aptly conceived. The soft and seductive words of the one and the ghastly laughter and angry scowl df the other are truly expressive of their characters. The speakers of the infernal conclave are all clearly conceived distinct individuals. Their speeches admirably conform to their characters. The bloody Moloch who delights in human sacrifice blusters like an angry brute; the lewd and luxurious Belial talks of ignoble ease and slothful peace; the mean-spirited Mammon whose only inspiration is in gold and lucre wants to build vain empires in Hell while Beelzebub, grave and dignified, the mighty lieutenant of Satan, advises diplomacy.

      In respect of sentiments, Paradise Lost far outshines the Iliad and also the Æneid in certain respects. In Homer; thoughts and conduct of persons do not always conform to their characters. Jupiter frequently quarrels with Juno, Hector, though a great hero, runs away from the very sight of Achilles, etc. Virgil’s characters are far more dignified and refined. But Milton outdistances his illustrious predecessors in this respect. His thoughts are simply sublime and the sentiments uniformly lofty. At times he is so high that our imagination fails to reach him.

      In the second book, Satan is fully worthy of the situation he has to race. He is uniformly grand, and everything about him except his unholy rebellion against God and his wicked intention to ruin man, is elevating. He says and does nothing which can demean him in our estimation. He is the awful spectacle of an indomitable spirit struggling against immense odds.

      Last of all is the question of language. Sublime thoughts should express themselves in sublime language. In dignity of expression and choice of diction, Milton far surpasses all other English poets. There is a true epic grandeur in his style. The symphonic march and the thundering eloquence of his words and phrases are especially suitable for a sublime epic like the Paradise Lost. He always avoids common expressions in order to impart dignity to his speech but never swells into false sublimity.

      In the Second Book, Milton’s style wonderfully echoes his sentiments. The comparisons of Satan’s flying figure in Hell to a far-off fleet hanging in the clouds, of his incensed look and dilated body to the huge burning comet that fires the entire length of the gigantic constellation of Ophiuchus, and of his fight with Death to two masses of black thunderclouds that hang in the mid-air darkening the waters of the Caspian are some of the instances of his stately imaginative style. In several places of the second Book the style suits the narrative admirably well; and Milton’s description of Hell, Satan’s passage through Chaos, the opening of the Hell gates are some of the instances of this. Lastly, the easy eloquence, subtle irony and bitter sarcasm of the speeches of the infernal spirits in the hellish conclave show some of the salient features of his dignified style.

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