Use of Proper Names in Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Great poets in all ages have shown their wonderful power of turning common things into uncommon. At their magic touch, the prosaic and commonplace are forthwith transformed into ideal beauty and soul-stirring romance. The dull drab of our routined life glows with the elifin hues of a hundred rainbows when a poet's eye surveys it. This wonderful power is more or less possessed by every true poet. But Milton possessed this power to an eminent degree. Nowhere is this power of his more manifest than in his use of proper names. The uncouth jaw-breaking names of persons and places which have not only no sweetness in them but are positively harsh and unmusical, suddenly and mysteriously come to have an indefinable charm and infinite suggestiveness in them when set into the framework of his poem. Apart from their poetic setting many of them are quite commonplace. We wonder how Milton could breathe the breath of life into these dull, unpromising and unmeaning proper names! The best examples may be found in Book I, lines 406-414; 579-587; Book IV, lines 268-87 etc. To illustrate our point we may also quote the following passages from our Book II:-

"As when Alcides, from Oechalia crowned
With conquest, felt the envenomed robe, and tore
Through pain up by the roots Thessalian pines,
And Lichas from the top of Oeta threw
Into the Euboic sea" II. 542-546.


"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."

      Referring to this wonderful capacity of Milton, Macaulay observes in his famous Essay on Milton:-

      "Scarcely any passage in the poems of Milton are more generally known or more frequently repeated than those which are little more than muster rolls of names. They are not always more appropriate or more melodious than other names. But they are charmed names. Every one of them is the first link in a long chain of associated ideas. Like the dwelling places of our infancy revisited in manhood, like the song of our country heard in a strange land, they produce upon us an effect wholly independent of their intrinsic value. One transports us back to a remote period of history. Another places us among the novel scenes and manners of a distant region. A third evokes all the dear classical recollections of childhood, the school-room, the dog-eared Virgil, the holiday, and the prize. A fourth brings before us the splendid phantoms of chivalrous romance, the trophied lists, the embroidered housings, the quaint devices, the haunted forests, the enchanted gardens, the achievements of armored knights, and the smiles or rescued princesses."

      The observations of Macaulay quoted above, though a little affected by his habitual fondness for rhetorical exaggeration, are mainly true. Milton’s use of proper names is really a measure of his poetic genius. Lines 268 to 287 of the Book 4, Paradise Lost supply an excellent illustration of these charming proper names so eloquently referred to by Macaulay.

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