Milton's Use of Homeric Similes in Book 9 of Paradise Lost

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      The epic Simile or Homeric simile is an extended comparison wherein a subject is compared to something that is presented at such length or in such detail that the subject is momentarily lost sight of.

      Milton’s employment of the ‘Homeric’ simile, an epic convention first used by Homer, the Greek epic poet, serves to illustrate what passages of beauty might be evolved out of mere outworn conventions of style if they could only be handled by a man of genius. The Homeric simile differs from the ordinary kind of simile, in that it does not stop with the ornamental comparison. To the object brought in for purposes of comparison, it tacks on some extra detail whose only purpose is to present a pleasing picture to the mind. Thus, it provides a pause in the narrative, to allow a reader to rest and enjoy an incidental dream. We may illustrate Milton’s handling of this epical device by a review of the Homeric similes introduced in Book IX. There are nine of them, of which four are definitely long and have a distinct ‘Homeric’ flavor, while the remaining five are somewhat shorter. They are introduced in the poem just where they would be relished, that is, when the narrative flags or the emotions are tense, and a pleasing digression would be appreciated by the reader.

      When we are beginning to get tired of the domestic quarrel about the respective provinces of Free Will and Reason, the poet, with unerring instinct, introduces a variously allusive Homeric simile; or rather, two of them. One bears on Eve in the Garden of Eden and the other on the Garden itself. Echo is a collection of pictures. Eve coming out, fresh and free, amidst the woods and orchards, is at first compared to some divine woodland damsel of classical antiquity, to ‘Oread or Dryad’ or of Delia’s train and then she is said to surpass ‘Delia’s self’ in her gait and goddess-like deportment. This is a minor excursion into the classical woodlands. And it is immediately followed by a further comparison of Eve to Pales, or Ceres; to Pomona ‘when she fled Vertumnus’ and to Ceres in her prime ‘yet virgin of Proserpina from Jove’. This is interesting, for it opens out to us the picture of a maiden feeling and a god pursuing, and a further speculation of what Ceres looked like-being already fresh and beautiful—when she Was ‘yet virgin’ that is, before Jove made her the mother of Proserpina. Eve, in other words, is as yet innocent of sin.

      The ‘thick woven arborets’ and banks of flowers, Eve’s handiwork, through which the serpent ‘rustles’ on its way to Eve standing veiled in a ‘cloud of fragrance’ are compared to some well-known gardens of myth, legend, and history; to the ‘feigned’ gardens of revived Adonis on renowned Alcinous, or the real garden in which that ‘sapient king’, Solomon the Wise, ‘held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse.’ This, again, though not very long, gives three successive pictures.

      But the lines that follow are a Homeric simile of the long, accepted, easily recognizable type. Satan’s thrill on seeing Eve in the rose-garden in compared to that of a youthful city-dweller when he takes a jaunt in the country and meets there one of the fresh country maids in beautiful surroundings. For long has he been in the city ‘pent’, i.e., shut up, and so he goes forth to breathe some fresh country air, with its blended fragrance of grain and grass and cows and milk. As he is just beginning to enjoy things, there passes in front of him a fresh rustic damsel: The pleasant surroundings become even more pleasant because of her, in fact, all the beauty of his surroundings seems to centre in her. The feelings of Satan on beholding Eve amidst the flowers were like the feelings of such a city-dweller who has strayed into the country to gaze on rustic beauties.

      In Book 9 Paradise Lost Satan as the serpent has four more similes to his credit, of which the third is the most apt, as it is also the most ‘Homeric’. The first of these compares him, in respect of his ‘pleasing shape’ to some well-known serpents of legend, who were also transformed creatures from original human or divine shape. This simile affords the poet an opening for the introduction of some musical proper names like Hermione, Epidaurus, Ammonium Jove, and Olympian. The next one is descriptive of the sidelong hesitating approach of the serpent towards his victim; he is compared to a ship coming to port, steering or shifting her sail as often as the wind ‘veers’. The third simile is long and glorious. It occurs when Eve asks the serpent to lead her to the fatal tree. “Hope elevates, and joy brightens his crest,” and so the serpent glistens as he leads the way. Here he is compared to the ‘will-o’-the wisp’, a deceitful light in the marshes, said to be a gleaming devil bent on mischief and misleading night wanderers to their destruction. The comparison is apt. Eve, in fact, is being deceived. She is following Satan towards her destruction.

      The serpent’s oratory is given the honor of a comparison with the celebrated oratory of the ancient Greek or Roman masters; and one thinks of the Posture and intonation of a Demosthenes or Cicero.

      Adam, rising from his slumber after his lustful dalliance with Eve and suddenly plunged into a sense of overpowering shame at his own folly, is compared in an effective Homeric simile to that “Danite strong, Herculean Samson” rising from the “harlot-lap of Philistine Delilah,” shorn of his strength. The ‘Homeric’ addition is in the epithets employed to describe Samson and Delilah, so that we contemplate them for a while with a momentary forgetfulness of Adam and his story. 

      The last two similes of the poem take the reader, first to ‘Malabar or Deacon’ and then to distant America, as Columbus found it. The fig-tree, of which the leaves first clothed Adam and Eve, is said to be the kind of tree which is known to Indians ‘at this day’; and then follows a magnificent description of that ‘pillard’d shade’ the Indian Banyan. We are given no chance to remember that if the Banyan does not really have leaves as broad as the ‘Amazonian targe’, for we just get lost in the cool shades and the echoing walks of Milton’s ‘Indian fig’: And this extensive picture is followed, lastly, by a momentary glimpse of the Americans of old who hid from Columbus and his mates.

      Critics have complained that Milton’s similes are merely decorative and pedantic, exhibiting the poet’s learning. However, a study of the similes in their contexts shows that Milton’s use of these comparisons are relevant, besides being functional. Beyond that, the similes serve to Elevate the tone of the work as a whole.

University Questions

Critically examine Milton’s use of Homeric similes in Book IX of Paradise Lost.
Discuss the significance of epic similes in Book IX of Paradise Lost.

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