Milton’s Grand Style


“What has made the poem live is not the story—— but the incomparable  elevation of the style, the shaping spirit of imagination and the mere majesty of the music.” Verity

Before going into details, first we should know what a sublime style is. Style is defined as “the dress of thought.” It is defined as a writer’s way of expressing his ideas and subject matter. The role of sublime and elevated style cannot be connived in writing. That’s why, every writer tries his utmost to distinguish himself from other writers in style and expression. Mathew Arnold was the first who came forward and used the phrase “Grand Style” in his famous essay, “On Translating Homer.” He defined a grand style in the following words:“The grand style arises in the poetry when a noble nature poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or severity a more serious subject.”

            There is no doubt in the fact that it is difficult to define a grand style. However, its outstanding qualities are sublimity of thought as well as expression and compression. Whenever the idea of great style occurs in our minds, John Milton’s name flashes in our minds. Milton created a style of his own which is worthy of his lofty epic theme, and it seems as if it belonged to the ancient heroic themes. It has been compared to “the large utterance of early gods.” After reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mathew Arnold says: “He is our great artist in style, our one first-rate master in the grand style.” When Wordsworth wrote: “Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea”, definitely he was talking of Milton’s grand style. Now, let’s discuss the qualities of Milton’s grand style one by one.

            The first quality of Milton’s grand style is the use of number of allusions and references. They seem obscure along with the arcane and archaic vocabulary. No doubt, they are too obscure to understand them, yet they have been used in an extraordinary way by the poet. The purpose of using these allusions is to broaden the reader’s understanding through comparison. So, we can say that the Paradise Lost is a master-piece by a scholar for the scholars because most of the references, comparisons and allusions are beyond a common man’s reach and understanding. An allusion from astronomy science is obvious when he elaborates the size of Satan’s shield.

“Like the moon, whose orb

   Through Optic Glass the Tuscan artist views

At evening, from the top of Fesole.”

            The second major quality of Milton’s grand style is his use of “Epic Similes.” These similes are extended similes and have been used by Milton in a classical manner. He had great knowledge of classical literature, mythology, history, geography and the various aspects of nature. That’s why, he borrows his similes chiefly from all these branches of knowledge. That’s why, they become more complex, more fragment and more meaningful. The similes he has used for the description of Satan and the fallen angels have made his style unique, perfect and exemplary. He writes:

 “Thick as autumnal leaves that strews the brooks In Vallombrosa”

 And his haply slumbering on the Norway Foam

The Pilot of some small night foundered skiff deeming some island.”

            He compares the fallen angels to the plague and a hive of bees in spring time. There is also a use of Homeric or long-tailed similes which give majesty, grandeur and sublimity to his style. Milton compares the face of Satan with the sun in eclipse while eclipse is the sign of an ill omen.

      “Of glory obscured; as when the sun new risen

            Look through the horizontal misty air

      Shorn of his beams, or, from behind the Moon.”

            Johnson says about Miltonic similes: “His (Milton’s) similes are less numerous, but more varied than those of his predecessors.”

The third major quality of Milton’s grand style is the manipulation of rhythm and sounds. It is one of his great achievements in English literature. Besides Shakespeare, it was only Milton who got great success in manipulating the language. We see continuous flow of long sentences and paragraphs and it is like the dramatic blank verse of Shakespeare’s dialogue.

            Raleigh observes: “The name of Milton has become the mark, not of biography, nor of a theme but of a style.”

            The fourth major quality of Milton’s grand style is his use of personification. He is fond of personifying things. By means of this, he imparts the suggestion of living personality and individual being to hill and dale, to the days and hours and to the countries and reasons.

            The fifth major quality of Milton’s grand style is the use of peculiar nameswhich he uses to lend dignity to his style. He frequently uses unfamiliar and old-fashioned names on account of their sonority and impressiveness. Sometimes, he names with classical or Biblical association, as when he speaks of Iliuminstead of “Troy”, “Ausonian Landinstead of Italy”, or of places such as Auranor Telessar, or names which are very effective because of the romantic deeds connected with them.  Sometimes, we see that he culls(چننا) the names for their musical sounds. In Paradise Lost, we see that he is fond of using Italian names. The use of “Vallombrosa” is the best example of it. The use of these names for their sound and sense and their historical and literary association makes his style sublime and lofty.

            The sixth quality of Milton’s grand style is perspicuity in style. Perspicuity and clarity in style has been an epic tradition. Milton’s Paradise Lost is also clear. Though his conceptions and structure are complex and intricate, yet he is successful in making it clear and vivid and he does it skillfully by focusing on the purpose of his narration.  A critic observes:

Each word is of value. There is no mortar between the stones, each is held in place by the weight of  the others, and helps to uphold the building.”Here is the mightiest army one can imagine rendered in less than six lines:

 “Ten thousand banners rise into the air

With orient colours waving with them rose

A forest huge of spears, —-immeasurable.”

            The seventh quality of Milton’s grand style is that he has the ability to sum up his vast imagination in a few verses. We do not find any limitation of time and space when he uses imagination.  We see his imagination going back to the past and passing over the entire continent of Europe when he depicts the multitude  of the fallen angels.

 A multitude like which the populous North


Beneath Gibraltar, the Lybian sands.”

            The eighth quality of Milton’s grand style is that he uses the compactness and the unity of emotional impression as a conscious artist. He does not use any word without weighing its meaning and sounds. “The use of the right word is more important than the right argument.”Definitely, he had in mind all the epic qualities and characteristics of a grand style. A critic says:“His poetry acts like an incantation. Its merit lies in its obvious meanings than its occult power.”

            The ninth major quality of Milton’s grand style is his use of a lofty tone. He maintains this tone in the speeches of Satan. We cannot overlook the rhetorical eloquence with which Satan appreciates and encourages the fallen angels. Same lofty tone can be witnessed in all his books.

“To do ought good never will be our task

                                    But ever to do ill our soul delight


                                    Our labour must be to pervert that end.”

            The tenth and major quality of Milton’s style is his“Artistic Perfection.  In a reply to the observation that Shakespeare had never blotted a line, Ben Jonson said, “would he have blotted a thousand.” I think no one has ever uttered such a wish with regard to Milton’s poetry. He believes that Milton is never careless. In his poetic work, there is hardly a line or word which is unpoetical or superfluous. 

            The eleventh major quality of Milton’s grand style is Milton’s multilingualism. Throughout his poetry, we observe that different languages have been used by him.

            The next major quality of Milton’s grand style is his profound love for beauty. He is deeply sensitive to the beauty of eternal nature. With this sense of beauty, he has combined stateliness of manner which gives a high dignity to his poetry. The poet never stoops down at any stage to satisfy the tastes of the lower public.

            The last and major quality of Milton’s grand style is his mastery and use of blank verse. Arnold believes: “Milton’s blank-verse is the flawless perfection of rhythm and diction. In the field of balnk-verse, he has peers but no superior.” He has great command over words and in versification. And both these aspects become clear when he uses blank verse. In order to doll it, he uses spondees and trochees. This thing has inculcated a great fascination in his style. Tennyson referring to the majestic blank verse of Paradise Lost speaks of Milton “as being the God-gifted organ-voice of England.” The very first lines show the significance of blank verse in Paradise Lost. 

                                    “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit

                                    Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste

                                    Brought death into the world, and all our woe.”


            William Hazlitt also comments: Milton’s blank verse is the only blank verse in the language (except Shakespeare’s) that deserves the name of verse.

            Milton’s grand style has been criticized by many critics. T.S. Eliot criticizes in the following words. “His (Milton’s) style has many defects. It lacks full sensuous experience. It bears dead language. Besides that he has corrupted the English language.”Addison has also censured Milton’s grand style. He says, “Our language sank under him.” F.R. Levis has also same feelings. He criticizes Milton for his use of Latin idioms and syntax and use of exotic words and phrases.

            To sum up, everyone has his opinion and can give his opinion according to his thinking and experiences. But one thing is certain that we have observed his style minutely and can say without any hesitation and fear of contradiction that Milton’s Paradise Lost is the monumental work of John Milton and displays Milton’s grand style more than any other work of the poet. His style is certainly his own. It is difficult to see how such a work could be better written in some other style because he has made great use of diction, language, exotic words and epic similes in a skillful way. We fully agree with the remarks of a critic who says: Milton defined the style of English epic and in a real sense, with that style, ended the genre. After Milton and Paradise Lost, the English epic ends.”                        (Words: 1699)


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