Epic Simile: in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      A characteristic of Milton’s literary style in Book II of Paradise Lost is the extensive use of the epic simile to convey to his readers the grandeur and the sweep of the epic poem. In this matter, Milton has the benefit of his predecessors like Homer, Virgil, Spenser and others. Milton was influenced by them to such an extent that he often borrowed their similes. However, he comes out best as the user of the epic simile when he is original in his treatment of nature, myth and legend, travel and science and the technical arts.

      An epic simile as used by Milton is a long comparison of an event, object or person with something essentially different. In the hands of Milton, the epic simile becomes a means to produce the desired effect. The writer starts with a comparison say between A and B. As the comparison progresses, B becomes bigger than A until it completely eclipses the first. This kind of comparison is known as the epic simile, the long-tailed simile or the Homeric simile.

A Thing of Joy

      In the hands of Milton, the epic simile becomes a thing of pure joy. His art lies in choosing the right word and packing the maximum meaning in the minimum of words. Milton uses the simile to drive home a point through an elaborate manner of presentation. It at once makes the meaning clear through a vivid presentation. Milton makes use of a natural occurrence, a classical allusion, a historical or actual event as the basis for his similes. The means may be different in each case, but the end is the same - the simile contributes to the epic grandeur of the poem.

Not Integral

      Some critics have suggested that Milton makes use of the epic similes for their own sake and as a result they are not integral to the epic. This criticism may be discounted because the simile as used by Milton conspicuously heightens the grandeur of the poem. Nor would it be correct to state that the similes are too highbrow or pedantic to go down well with the general reader.

Nature Picture

      The first simile is seen in the murmur of applause which comes from the fallen angels at the end of Mammon’s speech. This is compared to the sound of dying winds after a storm, heard among the caves and rocks of the coast that still retain the sound of the wind because though the storm has ceased, the wind still continues murmuring among the rocks though elsewhere it seems to have died away. An elaborate nature picture has been drawn and this simile has drawn laudatory references from critics.

      In the second epic simile the sounds of the joys of the fallen angels are compared to the joyous sounds which are heard in a valley when the clouds have faded away and the sun shines brightly again. The joy felt by the fallen angels provides an occasion for Milton to bring before the reader’s mind a most pleasing scene of Nature. The simile is important because it marks a transition from the infernal debate of the fallen angels and suggests a renewal of hope among them.

     In the next epic simile, a comparison has been drawn between the athletic contest of fallen angels and the strange appearances of the Aurora Borealis in the sky which in the old days was supposed to portend wars and which to the fanciful mind has the appearance of the armies fighting in the sky. The simile reminds us of those strange sights which are sometimes seen in the sky and which are supposed to signify ill fortune to human beings. Milton here suggests by comparison the devilish activities of the fallen angels who are no longer angels but have become devils.

Mythological Sources

      There is another simile drawn from Greek mythology when due to an error committed by the wife of Hercules he met with a painful death. The purpose of the simile is to suggest that the angels are driven to feats of desperation born of the agonies of Hell.

      Another celebrated simile compares Satan with outstretched wings to a fleet of the largest ships then known - the Indiamen. It is an elaborate picture that Milton has drawn and shows his love of exotic scenes and associations. Just as a fleet of ships would appear to a distant observer to be floating above the water and hanging in the clouds, so seemed Satan, as he fled in the far distance pushing forward to cross the bounds of Hell. It has been described as one of the most striking of Milton’s similes.

      The next simile relates to the figure of Sin. The dogs which surround the figure of Sin at the waist are compared to the dogs, which tormented the monster Scylla and then to the dogs which attend on Hecate, the queen of witches. Here the reference is to classical mythology.

      Satan has been compared to various objects. In his confrontation with Death, he is compared to a comet with its horrid tail portending national disasters and war. On another occasion the encounter between Satan and Death is compared to two black clouds hovering "front to front". It is a nature picture showing nature red in tooth and claw.

      On a third occasion, Satan flying through the air is compared to the monster Gryphon who is half-eagle and half-lion who chased the one-eyed man who had stolen the gold kept in the custody of the Gryphon. The comparison is brought out that Satan was traveling with the same expectancy as the Gryphon.

      In the hands of Milton, the epic simile is not a trick of style but comes alive through a richness of comparison and an imaginative intensity of feeling.

University Questions

Write a critical note on the epic similes of Book II of Paradise Lost.
The epic similes of Book II do not have the Homeric qualities of Book I, yet they are no less beautiful. Discuss.
Discuss the use made by Milton of epic similes in Book II of Paradise Lost.

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