Milton's Epic Similes in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      One of the grandest features of Paradise Lost is its long-drawn similes. There is a harmony and grandeur in the similes of Milton. A full-blooded vitality and a rich redundancy which overwhelms every reader of Paradise Lost with surprise.

      Paradise Lost without its similes is a skeleton without its flesh and - blood. They not only decorate and diversify the theme but add to it that grandeur and harmony, beauty and variety which form the chief attraction of Paradise Lost.

      A simile is a figure of speech which consists in the explicit statement of similarity between two different objects and occurrences. The primary function of a simile in poetry is to decorate or beautify a statement or thought, and, in prose, to explain or illustrate something unfamiliar with the help of something familiar. But an epic simile is otherwise. It does not end with the mere statement of resemblance which does not often last above a line or two, but runs until the poet has been able to raise out of it some glorious image or sentiment, proper to inflame the mind of the reader, and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment at which an epic naturally aims. Such a simile is also called a Homeric simile because Homer first used it in his great epic Iliad, Milton, in imitation of Homer, has introduced several such similes in his epic.

      Addison is quite right when he says that each simile of Milton is a short episode. It is complete in itself and has an interest in itself apart from that of the main theme of the epic. Each of them calls up a complete picture of some natural phenomenon or some geographical fact, mythological incident or some Biblical narrative which absorbs our attention for the time being and makes us forget the main theme. The amplitude of his similes constitutes their chief excellence. Each adventitious image is so expanded in his famous similes that the mind of the reader is filled with a number of pictures which ultimately coalesce into a grand harmonious whole.

      The French poet and critic, Charles Perrault, failing to relish the majestic amplitude and long-drawn harmonies of epic-similes, ridicules them as "long-tailed comparisons". But we should remember that a poet is not a rhetorician, at least an epic poet is certainly not. His aim is sublimity and magnificence, and so everything that he handles is on a large scale. A neat, precise and pointed simile will be out of harmony with the mighty structure and sustained grandeur of an epic. Boileau, in answer to Perrault, rightly remarks: "Comparisons in odes and epic poems, are not introduced only to illustrate and embellish the discourse, but to amuse and relax the mind of the reader, by frequently disengaging him from too painful an attention to the principal subject, and by leading him into other agreeable images".

      In illustration of the remarks made above we may quote the following similes from the second book of Paradise Lost:-

"As when from mountain-tops, the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North-wind sleeps, O'erspread
Heaven's cheerful face, the louring element
Scowls O'er the darkened landskip snow or shower;
If chance the radiant sun with farewell sweet
Extend his evening beam, the fields revive,
The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds,
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings".


"As when, to warn proud, cities, war appears
Waged in the troubled sky, and armies rush
To battle in the clouds; before reach van
Prick forth the aery knights, and cough their spears,
Till thikest legions close; with feats of arms,
From either end of Heaven the welkin bums."


"As when far off at sea a fleet described
Hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial winds
Close sailing from Bengala, or the isles
Of Ternate and Tidore, whence merchants bring
Their spicy drugs; they on the trading flood,
Through the wide Ethiopian to the cape,
Ply stemming nightly toward the pole: so seemed
Far off the flying Fiend".

"Each at the head
Leveled his deadly aim; their fatal hands
No second stroke intend; and such a frown
Each cast at the other, as when two black clouds, With Heaven's artillery fraught, come rattling on
Over the Caspian, then stand front to front
Hovering a space, till winds the signal blow To join their dark encounter in mid-air".

      The following are some of the famous Miltonic similes in Book Dr- Lines 488-495; Lines 533-538; Lines 636-643 and Lines 714-720.

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