Paradise Lost as A Classical Epic

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      Milton was a great classical scholar. He combined in himself the erudition of a scholar with the genius of a poet. But his scholarship did not in any way interfere with, or detract from his creative power; in fact, he pressed his classical learning to the service of his poetry. This fact is borne out by his earlier poems like Comus and Lycidas, especially the latter. From his early youth, Milton had a feeling that he was destined to write a great poem, and for this task, he prepared himself most conscientiously. He firmly believed that a man “who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poet.” It was this conviction that helped to mold his character and set before him the great ideal of “plain living and high thinking.” He devoted himself to study and meditation, and aspired to write a great poem that ‘the world will not let die.’ He dreamt of immortality and he aspired to rank with Homer and Virgil.

      At first, Milton could not definitely decide whether he would write an epic or a tragedy. The subject of his poetic work also engaged his serious attention. After considering many themes, he decided upon the Fall of Man. In fact, he made an outline of a tragedy on this subject.—But sometimes afterward he decided to write an epic on the classical model so that he might take his place by the side of Homer and Virgil.

      The theme of Milton’s epic was vast in its scope, but his genius rose to the height of the argument. His imagination roamed over the whole of the universe—Heaven and Hell and Chaos and the Earth. Nothing so vast and stupendous has ever been conceived by the human mind. And the hero of the epic would be the first Man created by God. In the story again he included the grim war between God and Satan. All this was to be cast into the mold of a classical epic with its rigid insistence on unity of action. A great task and a difficult task from which even the most adventurous spirit would quail. But Milton—the God-gifted organ voice of England—undertook this task and accomplished it with unprecedented success.

      An epic, according to classical tradition, must necessarily contain three elements of greatness viz. great action, great hero and great style. These three conditions are fully satisfied in Milton’s epic. No greater action can be conceived than the Fall of Man on which depended the destiny of the whole human race. Again, no hero can be greater than the First Man created by God in his own image. And lastly, the style of Paradise Lost has all that grandeur and greatness which the epic demands. Milton had a voice, which according to Wordsworth, had ‘the sound of the sea.’ The style of Paradise Lost is in English poetry the truest example of grand style, and the march of its poetic lines resembles the procession of ocean waves with their sonority and grandeur.

      There is perfect unity of action in Paradise Lost as in the great classical-epics of Homer and Virgil. The theme of Paradise Lost is ‘Fall of Man’; everything in the poem either leads up to it or follows from it. The plucking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge by Eve is the apex of the whole architecture of Paradise Lost.

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Fourth-reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat.
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost.

      The lines, form the central point around which everything else in the poem turns. The war between God and Satan, followed by Satan’s fall, is only the prelude to the main action. Satan, defeated and punished, sought to take revenge on God by bringing about the fall of Man. Hence the fall of Satan does not constitute a separate action, as contended by some critics. The whole action of Paradise Lost is single and compact. There are some episodes, as that of Sin and Death, which are the necessary appurtenances of the classical epic.

      According to classical tradition, Milton in the beginning invokes the Muse to help him in his great task. But as he was a Puritan and was writing an epic on a religious theme, he seeks the aid, not of the pagan muses of poetry, but the Heavenly Muse, the Holy Spirit:

And chiefly thou, O spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou knowest; thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like sat brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st in pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support.

      Again, he plunges, in exact conformity with the classical tradition, into the middle of the action (media res). The poet begins his epic with Satan and the fallen angels floating on the lake of fire in Hell. How they fell into this state is explained in subsequent books of the epic.

      According to classical tradition, the theme of an epic must have a national importance or significance; that is, the epic must depict the life and thought of a nation or a race through the action presented in it. The national life of the Greeks, their thought and culture, are presented in Homer’s Iliad; those of the Romans in Virgil’s Aeneid. Milton’s Paradise Lost has a wider scope and larger significance than either the Iliad or the Aeneid because it deals with the whole human race, and indicates the destiny of all humanity through the sin of the first man created by God. Homer’s epic is of the primitive type unifying the scattered legends extant in his time, and is therefore simple and native in its temper and style. Milton’s epic is of the artificial type, for the poet himself imagined the whole story unattempted yet in prose or rhyme, and imposed upon it the framework of an epic. In this classical framework, Milton expressed his puritanical ideas, for his aim, as he himself pointed out, was “to assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man.”

      Paradise Lost is full of classical allusions and contains similes of the Homeric type, the whole poem is saturated with Milton’s classical learning. But at the same time it is based upon the foundation of Christian theology. Paradise Lost is thus a classical epic imbued with Puritan thought; it shows a blending of Classicism and Puritanism.

      The third essential condition of an epic is grand style. A great action needs a worthy style for its adequate presentation, and Milton’s poetic style in Paradise Lost is the last word of sublimity in English poetry. Paradise Lost excels as a poetic work both for the loftiness of its theme and for the grandeur of its style. Truly has Tennyson called Milton “mighty mouthed inventor of harmonies” and “God-gifted organ-voice of England.” The language of Paradise Lost bristles with Latinisms, and to some extent, this fact lifts the style above the commonplace. Anything common or trivial would have spoilt the effect of the great epic.

      The alleged lack of humanity in the poem is made up of the similes, historical allusions and references, and by the attribution of human feelings to the angels and the devils. Above all, the human interest in the poem centers round the figure of Adam, who is the central character of Paradise Lost. The Epic, like the Tragedy, is, according to Aristotle, a story of human action. Paradise Lost is essentially a story of human action; though there are only two human characters in the epic—and they make their appearance as late as the fourth book of the poem; yet their act of disobedience is the central theme of the epic: and this act - viz. eating “the fruit of that forbidden tree”—is of tremendous significance, for on it depends the fate of the whole human race. The last two lines of the poem, describing the departure of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden are pregnant with deep pathos, and appeal to every human heart:

They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

      Paradise Lost is thus shaped on the model of the classical epic, but it is at the same time imbued with what may be called Christian Humanism.

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