Epic Similes in Paradise Lost Book 9

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      In his great epic, Milton invariably introduced a large number of similes in order to enrich and dignify his poem. He was here merely following the example of the great poet, Homer. Homer is justly celebrated for the abundance and variety of his similes which constitute the main charm of his poem. Other poets have tried to follow in his wake with varying degrees of success. Milton is the only epic poet who might be said to have surpassed even Homer's use of similes. The learning at Homer’s command was extremely limited; and he could therefore only draw from his personal experience or observation; Milton on the otherhand, was the most learned man of his time. In his memory, there were stored various bits of information gathered from extensive reading. For his similes, therefore, he could draw on this vast treasure house.

Epic Similes in Paradise Lost

      Milton frequently makes use of short and long similes to produce a number of effects severally or collectively. Because of his superhuman theme of Paradise Lost, Milton was obliged to make his images and sentiments tangible and comprehensible by making a judicious use of similes both negatively and positively.

Learned and Elaborate

      Not only do Milton’s similes occur more frequently and abundantly in comparison to the other epic poets but they are also more elaborate and learned. Milton tries to achieve sublimity and grandeur in his style. The similes used by him give out his astonishing story of bearing, and the still more astonishing range and flight of imagination. Thus Raleigh comments: “The same motives and tendencies, the same consistent care for remoteness and loftiness, may be seen in the character of the similes that he most frequently employs. Almost all his figures and comparisons illustrate concrete objects, by concrete objects and occurrences in time by other occurrences later in time.”

Similes from Classical Learning

      Milton drew his similes from the extensive store house of classical literature and mythology. Milton uses negative similes from this classical learning and mythology when he describes the beauty of Paradise.

Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cast Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; Nor that sweet grave
Of Daphne or Orontes, and the inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive
Similes from Contemporary life

      An example of a simile drawn from contemporary life is when Satan leaps,

Over the walls of Paradise;
Whom hunger drive to seek new haunt for prey,
In hurdles cotes amid the field-secure,
Leaps o’er the lence with ease into the fold;
Or as a thief bent to unhoard the cash
Of some richer burger, whose substantial door,
Crossed-barred and bolted fast, fear no assault,
In at the window climbs or o’er the tiles:
So clomb this first grand thief into God’s fold
So since into his Church lewd hirelings climb.

      Such similes which were drawn from contemporary social and political life were more effective as these were more easily comprehensible to the readers.

Milton’s Epic Similes

      Milton makes varied use of epic similes in Paradise Lost Book IX. In the invocation Milton selects significant incidents from the great classical epic of Iliad, Achilles’ vindictive pursuit of Hector round the walls of Troy. Not only does human anger surpass Milton’s own epic, but the wrath of the pagan Gods is shown to be much inferior to that of Milton’s God. These epic similes have the quality of superhuman permanence and vastness about them. They create an unmistakable impression of greatness and sublimity. He does not confine himself within the limits of rigorous comparisons. His great excellence is amplitude, and he expands the casual image beyond the dimension which the occasion required.

Eve’s Grandeur

      As Eve departs to work separately from Adam, Milton describes her majesty with mythological comparisons. Her majesty and grace have been stressed by comparing her to a number of goddesses of classical mythology. Adam continued to watch her as she walked away:

Thus saying, from her husband’s hand her hand
Soft she withdred, and like a wood-nymph light,
Oread or Dryad, or of Delia’s train,
Betook her to the groves, but Delia’s self
In gait surpassed and goddess-like deport,
Though not as she with bow and quiver armed,
But with such gardening tools as art, yet rude,
Guiltless of fire had formed, or Angels brought
To Pales or Pomona, thus adorned,
Likest she seemed, Pomona when she fled
Vertumnus - or to Cere in ber prime,
Yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove.

      The simile hints at the imminent separation of Eve from Adam. The enemy of Man, Satan is lying in wait to tempt and seduce Eve and thus ruin their blissful state for ever.

Eden-any Mythological Garden

      Milton compares Eden to mythological gardens. It establishes his point that not only was this garden more beautiful than the other mythological gardens but also included them all in it. The beauty in Eden is emphasised by comparing it to a number of gardens in mythology and literature such as the garden of Alcinous, king of the Phaecians and the host of Odysses made famous by Homer in his Odyssey. In fact, Eden has been described as an archetypal garden which would be a model for all other future gardens.

Satan Compared with Mythological Snakes

      The snake into which Satan enters has been described for its beauty with the help of allusions to famous snakes in mythology. Initially, the serpent does not crawl on the ground as it would do later. The beauty of the snake has been described thus:

Fold above fold, a surging maze; his head
Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes;
With burnished beck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant. Pleasing was his shape
And lovely; never since of serpent kind lovelier.

      No snake either in literature or in mythology was ever lovelier than this one. He also becomes an archetypal snake, one who includes within himself all snakes.


      The serpent when he acts as a guide to Eve is compared to will O-the-Wisp. It is the light seen in marshy places at night.

In tangles, and made intricate seem straight,
To mischief swift. Mope elevates, and joy
Brightens his crest, as when a wandering fire
Compact of unctuous vapor, which the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round,
Kindled through agitating to a flame
Which oft they say, some evil spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads the’ amazed night-wander from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool,
There swallowed up and lost, from succour far.
So glistened the dire snake, and into fraud
Led Eve our credulous mother, to the tree.

      Thus, would be brought about the Fall of Eve who is being misguided by the serpent and since she is working away from her husband even he cannot come to her aid.

Satan and his Shield

      The shield of Satan is compared to the orb of the Moon, he crowds the imagination with the discovery of the telescope;

His ponderous shield,
Ethereal temper, massy large, and round,
Behind him cast. The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to decry new lands,
Rivers or mountains in her spatty globe.

      These long-drawn similes though detractive tend to be grand and massive.
The reader’s imagination is taken away to visions and impressions quite different from those that occasioned them.

Samson and Delilah

      In an appropriate simile Adam and Eve are compared to Sampson and Delilah. Sampson, the Greek hero had the secret of his strength in his hair. The woman named Delilah whom he married somehow persuaded him to tell her the secret of his strength and then during his sleep, she cut off his hair. On waking up Sampson found that he had lost his Herculean strength. Similarly, Adam and Eve wake up to find the loss of their virtue and glory. Earlier, they had enjoyed all the pleasures of Heaven but now they have become sinful creatures subject to death and suffering. Milton’s anit-feminine attitude is brought out when he stresses the point that in both the cases, the cause for the Fall was a woman.


      Through these consciously cultivated and artistically applied similes Milton produces a grandeur and sublimity of both thought and style rarely found in English language. Milton’s similes are strictly functional. They are an integral part of his technique of his communication. One feels that Milton’s similes are as beautiful as they are appropriate. When the subject is dignified, he can bring in lofty and inspiring similes, and when the occasion demands it, he can indulge, also in base and contentious comparisons. Everywhere in these similes we see evidence of great scholarship and keenness of perception.

University Questions

Bring out the significance of the Epic Similes in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
Is it true that Milton uses Epic Similes with much frequency and abundance in Book IX of Paradise Lost?

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