"Paradise Lost": A Classical Epic

Characteristics of an Epic
An epic is the highest type of narrative poetry. It is a long narrative poem in which the characters and the action are of heroic proportions. From the works of Homer and Virgil, certain characteristics have become established in the West as standard attributes of the epic. The main attributes are given below.

(i) The hero is a figure of great national or international importance. Moreover, the characters must belong to the highest class in a society, raised above the common man by birth, position, manners and appearance. They must be kings and princes descended from heroes, and even from the gods, compelling in their deportment and arresting in their personal appearance. In Paradise Lost the hero is Adam, who incorporates in himself the entire race of man.
(ii) The setting is ample in scale, sometimes world-wide, or even larger in the classical epic. The scope of Paradise Lost is cosmic, for it includes Heaven, Earth and Hell.
(iii) The action involves heroic deeds: Paradise Lost includes the war in Heaven, the journey of Satan to discover the newly created world, and his audacious attempt to outwit God by corrupting mankind.
(iv) The action should be an entire action, complete in itself. By this is meant that it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
(v) The next characteristic of the epic poem according to Aristotle is that it must have greatness, by which is meant that it must produce far-reaching consequences in which the destinies of great men and nations are involved.
(vi) God are also used in the epic as a tragedy, as deux ex machina; the intervention of supernatural machinery advances the plot and solves its complications. It not only gives ample scope for the exercise of the poet’s imagination, it also provides a proper spiritual support for the heroic deeds.
(vii) An epic poem is a ceremonial composition and deliberately given a ceremonial style proportionate to its great subject and architecture. Hence, Milton’s Latinised diction and stylized syntax, his resounding lists of strange and sonorous names, and his epic similes, that is, sustained similes in which the comparison is developed far beyond the specific points are appropriate.
(viii) The poet begins by stating his theme, then invokes a Muse in his great undertaking and addresses the Muse.
MAIN ATTRIBUTES OF MILTON’S EPIC:
PARADISE LOST
(i) Universality of the Subject-matter in “Paradise Lost
Milton’s Paradise Lost is not a national epic like the Iliad or the Aeneid; nor is it an epic after any of the known types. It is an epic of the whole human species-an epic of our entire planet or indeed of the entire astronomical universe. The vast compass of the story, its space, time, characters and purpose make it unique among the world epics and fully entitle its author to speak of it as involving:
“Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
It is a poetical representation of the historical connection between the created World and the immeasurable and inconceivable Universe of Prehuman Existence. The newly created Earth with all the starry depths about it has as yet but two human beings upon it, and these are the persons of the epic. The grand purpose of an epic is to connect, by stupendous imagination certain events of this pre-supposed Infinite Eternity with the first fortunes of this favoured planet and its two human inhabitants. Now the person through the narration of whose acts this connection is established is Satan, a central character of the epic.
Milton’s Paradise Lost has a wider scope and larger signifi-cance than either the llliad 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. Thus Milton promotes a universal view of man’s life on this earth and shows how he has a past, a present and a future devised for him by the might of God and as a result of his own exertions. This is the didactic or philosophical view of an epic. Milton says that he has undertaken to write of the Fall of Man and to justify the ways of God to men. Man is born endowed with free will and great powers, but he is subject to the decrees of the Almighty who is filled with love for his own creations. We can make or mar our destiny since we are given freedom to work out the will of God or suffer from the consequences of disobeying Him. This is a cosmic or eternal view which is bound to inspire all of us with hope for the future. Coleridge commented on the universal appeal of Paradise Lost saying “it represents the origin of evil and the combat of evil and good, it contains a matter of deep interest to all mankind, as forming the basis of all religion and the true occasions of all philosophy whatsoever.”
(ii) Unity of Action in “Paradise Lost
There is a 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. The lines,
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth-reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat.
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through her all works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost:
are the central lines round which everything else in the poem turns. The war between God and Satan, followed by Satan’s fall, is only a prelude to the main action. Satan defeated and punished, sought to take revenge on God by bring 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 appurtenance of the classical epic. Since Milton’s characters are mostly supernatural-God, Angels, Devils – with but two human beings who are also more like angels than men, this makes the action of Paradise Lost also different from other epics. In Paradise Lost it concerns the whole creation: “everything is done under the immediate the visible direction of Heaven”.
(iii) Beginning, Middle and end of “Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost begins not at the beginning, but in the middle, then retraces the earlier history bit by bit and finally takes the story forward to complete the narration in a striking end. The fall of man is a long story, and its beginnings are to be traced back to Creation itself by the Almighty. But Milton chooses to deal with the Fall of Satan or Lucifer in the first book. This is a striking episode which arrests our attention, for we are introduced to Satan lying stunned in the sulphurous lake of endless fires after having been hurled down from high heaven by God. This is according to the classical convention that the action of an epic should plunge abruptly into the middle of the action. Who was Satan, why he fell, are the questions that engage our attention, and the poet then proceeds to tell us all about these in the later book of the poem.
(iv) Invocation of “Paradise Lost
There is an introductory invocation or prayer to God to inspire and bless the poet to complete his task properly. This is a common feature of all ancient epics. But the ancient epics appealed to gods and goddesses in whom the moderns no more believe. Instead, Milton prays to God to give him the necessary inspiration to complete his task. Here he brings out his faith in the concept of God according to the tenets of the Christian religion.
In the invocation to the Muse, Milton follows a poetic tradition adopted from antiquity-but in such a way so as to fill it with significance. The Heavenly Muse is in reality the divine inspiration which revealed the truths of religion of Moses and also the spirit of God which dwells in the heart of every believer.
(v) Hero and other associates in “Paradise Lost
The characters introduced into an epic poem are all endowed with powers and capacities of heroic proportions. For only then are our imagination and sympathies roused to their fullest extent, and we are thrilled by their exploits. Not only is the hero of outstanding personality, but his associates are also of heroic mould and stuff. This we find in the description and sketch of Satan, Beelzebub and the other fallen angels.
In one respect ‘Paradise Lost’ differs from the classical epics and that is in the number of the characters portrayed. The earlier epics were rich in characterization with many mortals and gods taking part in the action. Their personality and the motivations of all the participants in the different phases of the story, capture the interest of the readers; and there is also constant suspense about their fates. The subjects-matter of the fall of Adam and Eve obviously precluded any such generosity of characterization, especially of human beings.
(vi) Speeches of Elaborate Length in “Paradise Lost
Speeches of elaborate length are another feature of epics. A part from the poet’s explanations and descriptions of the background and scenery, the characters themselves speak fully explaining their thoughts, feelings and motives for our understanding. There is often a good deal of repetition, but this very repetition adds to a sense of the magnitude the fullness of the action. Besides direct reporting adds to the vividness of the narrative, and we feel as if we are spectators or participants in the scene or action.
(vii) Similes and metaphors and allusions in
Paradise Lost
Another feature of epics is the frequency with which figures of speech are employed. Similies and metaphors are most common. Book I abounds in a peculiar type of smiles which is called the Homeric Similes. They offer scope for the poet to exhibit his varied knowledge of nature, books and men in all aspects of life. Their appropriateness, picture sequences and beauty add to our enjoyment of the poem as a whole.
Next to similes, we have allusions, references to different aspects of older tradition, folklore, mythology, art and related activities of human beings in different parts of the world. Milton was one of the most learned of the world’s poets. All that was known to the ancient world and to his own contemporaries in all branches of human endeavour is found referred to in one context or the other in Paradise Lost. This is another source of pleasure and profit to the reader.
(viii) Grand Style of “Paradise Lost
The next essential characteristic of an epic is its 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, 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 common place. Anything common or trivial would have spoilt the effect of the great epic.
(ix) Human Interest in “Paradise Lost
Above all, the human interest in the poem centres 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 of 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.
(x) Sublimity in “Paradise Lost
An epic is a serious poem embodying sublime and noble thoughts. There is no room for pleasantry and fun and light-hearted gaiety in a classical epic. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a sublime and noble poem characterised for the imagination of man to distend itself with greater ideas than those which Milton has presented in the first, second and sixth books. The seventh book. The seventh book, which describes the creation of the world, is equally wonderful and sublime.
(xi) Moral Tone of “Paradise Lost
An epic is not without a moral. Besides giving a general representation to passions and affections, virtues and vices, the epic poet does not leave out a moral which he expects his readers to imbibe. The moral forms an integral and intrinsic part of Milton’s poem. It seeks to “vindicate the ways of God to men, to show the reasonableness of religion and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law.”
DRYDEN’S OBJECTION AGAINST “PARADISE LOST
AS A CLASSICAL EPIC
Dryden, however, doubted its claim to be called an epic, because, (1) it is not heroic enough; its main theme is not a war but the tale of man’s loss of his happiness; (2) unlike other epics it ends unhappily; (3) again, unlike other epics, it contains only two human characters, the other being “heavenly machines”.
The objections are either superficial or conventional. It is a needless restriction on epic poetry to say that it must always have a war as its main theme. Similarly, the fact that epics generally end happily does not mean that all epics must end so. Besides, as Johnson points out, Paradise Lost does not end unhappily. “If success be necessary,” he says, “then Adam’s deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker’s favour, and therefore may securely resume his human rank.” If Adam loses the eternal Paradise, he gains “a Paradise within him happier far.” Dryden’s third objection is sufficiently refuted by Addison. He says that though the number of characters in Milton‘s epic are not many, yet each of the characters is represented in more than one aspect. Thus we have Adam and Eve as they are before their fall and as they are after it. God is revealed as the Creator, the avenger of man’s wrongs and as man’s redeemer. Satan has three different aspects of his character. He is God’s enemy, man’s tempter and a great leader to his followers. Besides, abstract characters such as Sin and Death, are introduced. And surely, God and the angels, good and bad, are also characters. They are not merely “heavenly machines.”
To sum up: Paradise Lost is an epic. And it possesses all the essential characteristics that Aristotle demanded of an epic poem. (1) Its action or plot has unity, entirety and sublimity. The subject-matter, viz., the fall of man, forms the centre of the poem. Everything else moves round it, leads towards it or follows from it. Milton secures the unity of action by starting at the middle of the story and by opening the poem with the infernal council debate in Hell where man’s fall is plotted. The story is also told in its entirety. We are told, all that went before to cause man’s fall and all that followed as its result. The action is also sublime; there cannot be any more sublime theme than the fall of our first parents and the war in Heaven. (2) The Characters of Paradise Lost are also true epic characters. They are majestic and they are as many and as various as the peculiar nature of the poem allowed. (3) Its language is also sublime and appropriate to the characters. It is a perfect model of epic diction.
There are other incidental characteristics of epic poetry also in it. Like other epics, Paradise Lost treats a war; it employes “long-tailed” similes: it obeys the convention of invoking the Muse.
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