John Milton as Descriptive Poet of Similes

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      An epic tells the story of a great action and employs the method of narration. In course of narration, the poet describes the scene of action and the characters that take part in the action. In fact these descriptions enhance the dignity of the action. In Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of the Fall of Man: the scene of action is the whole universe; its characters are God, angels and man. Apart from narrating the story in the epic style, Milton has given descriptions of the characters and the scenes of action in the epic manner. They show on the one hand his vast erudition and on the other his soaring imagination. He has accepted the whole universe as his scene, and his imagination triumphantly expands to fill it.

      It has been said that Shakespeare lived in a world of time, Milton in a world of space. “No other English poet has such a God-like vision of the world, a vision revealed in the great pictures of boundless chaos and warring elements and in the constant suggestion of vast distances.” In order to create the sense of vastness, he omits details and gives general impression. For instance while describing Hell, he does not give a single detail, for details disturb the impression of the whole. Satan, on awaking from his trance, views “as for as Angel’s Ken,”

The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed;

      Milton’s vast stage and superhuman action demand, not the minute realism of Dante, but the constant use of the general and suggestive, whether in the pictures of Hell or of the ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden. (Bush).

      There is in Paradise Lost a wonderful fusion of classical generality and romantic suggestion. Milton often uses classical mythology for its symbolical meaning and suggests more than it expresses. The beauty of that finest of similes in the description of Eden, lies in the implication that another lovely and innocent Proserpin is about to be gathered by the prince of darkness. Both the myth and the image of the flower are recalled in the description of Eve on the eve of the temptation:

Nor that fair field
Of Erma, where Proserpin gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered—which Cost Cares all that pain
To seek her through the world—

Herself though fairest unsupported flower
From her best prop so, far, and storm so nigh.

      Milton presses all his scholarship to poetic service. His geographical names call up great events and great tracts of space and time. While describing the vast horde of fallen angels, he calls up pictures of armies of distant times and places:

And all who since, Baptized or infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Mountalban
Damasco or Morocco or Trebisond
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore....

      According to T.S. Eliot, Milton was deficient in visual power mainly because of his blindness; but this deficiency became a postive virtue in the imagery of Paradise Lost, where greater definiteness would spoil the effect. “Milton”, says T.S. Eliot, “is at his best in imagery suggestive of vast size, limitless space, abysmal depth and light and darkness.”

      Milton’s descriptive power is best exhibited in his similes. He makes use of Homeric similes, which in their largeness are in perfect accord with the dignity of an epic poem. These similes go far beyond the limits of comparison and call up pictures of large dimensions. While describing the huge bulk of Satan’s body, Milton compares him to that sea-beast, leviathan, whom:

happy slumbering on the Norway foam
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft as seamen tell
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind.
Moors by his side under the lec, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays

      The point of comparison is hugeness of size, but the poet goes on telling us the story of the pilot of some night-foundered skiff. The excellence of Milton’s epic similes lies in its amplitude. He does not confine himself to the point of comparison but expands the image beyond the dimension which occasion requires. While describing the shield of Satan, he compares it to the orb of the moon, and brings in the telescope and the wonderful things which it reveals.

The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
At evening, from the top of Fesole
Or in Valdarus, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.

      The similes, again, carry the mind over vast tracts of space and time. While describing the fallen angels floating on the lake of fire in Hell, Milton compares them with scattered sedge.

Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed
Hath vexed the Red Sea coast, whose waves overthrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursued
The sojourners of Goshen who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carcases
And broken chariot-wheels.

      The simile calls up the whole picture of the destruction of Egyptian ‘chivalry’, when they pursued “the sojourners of Goshen.” Again in describing these fallen angels, when they have reduced their size, Milton compares them to faery elves and brings in the tales and fancies of the Middle Ages:

faery elves
Whose midnight revels, by a forest side
Or fountain, some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while overhead the moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the Earth
Wheels her pale course.

      By means of his similes, again, Milton gives rest to the imagination which has been exhausted by the sublimity of Heaven and hell, and brings it home to the familiar scenes of earth. The simile of the evening after storm relieves the imagination after the story debate in Hell in the Second Book:

As, when from mountain-tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North-wind sleeps, o’erspread
Heaven’s cheerful force, the lourning 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.

      One of the difficulties of the theme Paradise Lost is its necessary exclusion of human history and things of common life. The action of the epic up to the moment of the Fall is laid in hell, heaven and a very small, innocent spot of earth, and there are only two human actors—a man and a woman. It may be alleged therefore that there is a comparative lack of human interest in Paradise Lost. But Milton has made up for it partly by means of his similies. While describing Hell, he brings the imagination of the reader down to earth. The ‘dry land’ of Hell

appeared in hue as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shattered side
Of thundering Etna.

      The fallen angels floating on the lake of Hell

lay entranced
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, when the Etrurian shades
High overarched embower.

      The vast multitude of these lost angels is thus described by a negative simile:

A multitude like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the south and spread
Beneath Gibraltar to the Lybian sands.

      The magnificence of the palace build by the fallen angels is unequalled in human history:

Not Babylon
Nor great Alcairo such magnificence
Equalled in all their glories, to enshrine
Belus or Serapis their gods, or scat
Their kings when Egypt with Assyria strove
In wealth or luxury.

      When Satan approaches Paradise, he meets gentle wind laden with sweet perfume:

As when, to them who sail
Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past
Mozambie, off at sea north-east winds blow
Sabcan odours from the spicy shore
Of Araby the Blest, with sueli delay
Well pleased they slack their course and many a league
Cheered with the grateful smell old Ocean smiles.

      Again, when Satan alights on Paradise overleaping a hill, he is compared to a thief:

as a thief, bent to unhoard the cash
Of some rich burgher, whose substantial doors,
Cross-barred and bolted fast, fear no assault,
In at the window climbs, or o’er the titles;
So clomb this first grand Thief into God’s fold.

      The matchless beauty of Paradise is indicated by means of negative simile, derived from classical mythology:

Not that fair
Of Erma, where Proserpin gathered flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered—which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.

      This simile, apart from its beautiful association, is all the more appropriate because Eve was nursing flowers when Satan approached her and tempted her.

      Thus Milton has brought into the ‘inhuman’ action of his epic, human history and geography, classical mythology and simple facts of human life, by means of his similes.

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